TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR by Joshua Ferris

I’ve given Joshua Ferris three chances. The first was Then We Came To The End, the book about the effect of the dotcom bust on a downsizing ad agency and its Greek chorus of employees, which I didn’t really like despite its rave reviews. The second was The Unnamed, about a lawyer afflicted with an illness that forces him to keep walking for months at a time, which I liked better than TWCTTE but still found to be inconsistent. And finally, I just finished To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, another Ferris novel that wasn’t what I expected and ultimately disappointed.


To Rise Again At A Decent Hour is about Paul O’Rourke, a neurotic, misanthropic atheist dentist living in Brooklyn who is obsessed with the Red Sox. (Yes, that’s all relevant.) When the book opens, Paul, who is very private and controlled in what he shares with the world, finds websites and social media accounts popping up in his name. Even more troubling,the content of the accounts is vaguely anti-Semitic (Paul is not Jewish, but he’s kind of obsessed with being Jewish) and go on and on about ancient peoples who allegedly faced persecution and prejudice worse than the Jews ever did.

Much of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour focuses on religious musings about the existence of God, using a somewhat confusing storyline of a man who has traced his roots back to one of these persecuted groups and is trying to recruit others who share the bloodline. Paul is one of those recruits, along with a multibillionaire hedge fund manager whom Paul befriends when they are both drawn in to this strange netherworld, which (sort of) explains the impersonations of Paul appearing on the Internet.

Sounds weird, right?

I had expected this book to be about modern technology and its negative impact on our lives and relationships, and there is some of that in here. But not much. The book meanders around through Biblical stories, anecdotes about Paul’s patients, explanations about why his prior relationships failed, and Paul’s inner dialogues about God. To be honest, most of this book was incredibly boring. There were flashes of brilliance here and there – and those flashes were bright. Like, laugh out loud, nod-in-the-car type of brilliance. But they were so few and far between that I had to ask myself over and over whether they were worth it for the narrative tedium that extended between them. The answer is no.

By the end of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, I was quite angry at the book. I found it pretty unpleasant to read. I liked the passages about Paul’s superstition about the Red Sox, and his skewering of random people walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade on summer night was hilarious. But the rest – my god, I want those hours back.

I listened to To Rise Again At A Decent Hour on audio. It was narrated by one of my favorite narrators of all time – the sublime Campbell Scott – and I bet that if he hadn’t been narrating, I would have given up on the book. He’s got this gorgeous, deep, perfect voice which I adore, and I’ve loved some of his other audiobooks. But even he couldn’t save this book for me. I kept wondering what HE thought of the book as he was narrating. Was his mind wandering too?

Sorry – can’t recommend this one.

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ALL JOY AND NO FUN by Jennifer Senior


Vacation read #3 was All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by Jennifer Senior. I rarely read non-fiction, but I saw this book at the library the day before we left on vacation and I grabbed it.

It is fitting that I am trying to write this blog post after a long day of being with the kids. It is now 12:07AM and our daughters are still awake (we’re on vacation). I feel physically and emotionally depleted, and if I weren’t getting in a car in the morning for 12 hours to head home and then dealing with re-entry and back-to-school prep on Sunday, I’d probably just wait to write this post. But I want to get it done before we get home, while the book is still fresh in my mind.

Basically, Senior has endeavored to explain why the hell we parents are so tired and stressed. There are good reasons for our anxiety, whether we have toddlers, elementary school kids, or teens. The challenges of raising each of these age groups are different, of course. For example, when our kids are little, we crave time when we are physically apart from them, and when they are older, we feel hurt when they reject us and don’t want to be with us. Younger kids are over-scheduled, while older kids constantly vacillate between wanting their independence and being totally helpless.

To research All Joy And No Fun, Senior interviewed couples, single moms, grandparents raising grandchildren, working moms, SAHMs, and SAHDs to get at the heart of why parenting can be both such a slog and the most rewarding thing we’ve ever done in our lives. She also explores the effect children have on marriage, on friendship, on work, and on self-esteem. I read this book with interest and felt reinforced by many of Senior’s conclusions. One of my friends on FB posted about this book a few months ago, calling it required reading for parents and suggesting that we have our parents read it too, so that they can understand why we’re all going crazy. I agree.

There’s also a lot in here about how “flexible” schedules and technology have made it hard to contain work to work hours and parenting to parenting hours.

Here are a few quotes that I thought were particularly insightful:

  • “The portability and accessibility of our work has created the impression that we should always be available. It’s as if we’re all leading lives of anti-flow, of chronic interruptions and ceaseless multitasking.” (YES!)
  • “A wired home lulls us into the belief that maintaining our old work habits while caring for our children is still possible.” (True!)
  • “The result, almost no matter where you cut this deck, is guilt. Guilt over neglecting the children. Guilt over neglecting work. Working parents feel plenty of guilt as it is. But in the wired age, parents are able to feel that guilt all the time. There’s always something they are neglecting.” (Amen!)
  • “Today’s parents are starting families at a time when their social networks in the real world appear to be shrinking and their communities ties, stretching thin.” (Yep!)
  • “All it takes for a couple to start fighting, really, is for them to go out to dinner with another couple whose domestic division of labor is slightly different from their own.” (Eek!)
  • “Our expectations of parents seem to have increased as our attitudes toward women in the workplace have liberalized.” (Makes sense!)
  • “Homework has replaced the family dinner.” (Oh my god, yes!)
  • “One wonders if actual family dinners might happen a bit more frequently if they hadn’t been supplanted by study halls at the dining room table, and if that time wouldn’t be more restorative and better spent – the stuff of customs and stories and affectionate memories, the stuff that binds.” (Um, what’s that?)
  • “Parents of adolescents have to learn, by stages, to give up the physical control and comfort that was once theirs. In the end, they are left only with words.” (UGH!)
  • “When parents spend forever trying to get their kids to stop playing video games and come down to dinner, they’re trying to impose artificial boundaries in time where no natural ones exist.” (Pretty much true!)

I can’t say that I walked away from All Joy And No Fun with The Answer to the challenge of how to parent successfully in this intense, connected, 24/7 world, but I did find it quite interesting and got a lot of perspective from it. If you liked the quotes I listed above, you’ll probably like this book too. If you can find the time to squeeze it in.

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THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

This year, my 10 year-olds and I are kicking off year 5 of our Mother-Daughter book club.

I spent a few weeks this summer compiling our 2014-2015 reading list. Here’s what our group will be reading this year:

Sept: The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
Oct: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
Nov: The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate
Dec: Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Jan: Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li Jiang
Feb: Because of Mr. Terupt, Rob Buyea
March: Holes, Louis Sachar
April: Running Out of Time, Margaret Peterson Haddix
May: Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
June: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare

Book #1 is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which we will be discussing in September.


I confess that I wouldn’t have picked this book if it weren’t on the girls’ recommended summer reading list for school, from which they had to read 5 books this summer. I am not into dystopian fiction for adults, so I figured I wouldn’t like it for kids either. But I was pleasantly surprised by The City of Ember.

Ember is a small city which is powered by a huge generator and lit by massive streetlights that go on at 6AM and are turned off at 9PM. Food and household items are sold at stores stocked by massive storerooms run by the city. The library contains books only about topics that are known to its residents, as well as fiction books about things in their imagination. When the book opens, Ember residents have only known years of abundance, with their needs being met by the seemingly endless supplies of goods in the storeroom.

But the city is showing signs of decay and trouble. Supplies are finally starting to run out, and some foods, like canned peaches and creamed corn, are so scarce that they are basically a memory. Basic items like paper, pencils, tools and yarn are almost impossible to come by. Ember residents have learned to recycle and reuse almost everything they have, and their homes are overrun with broken furniture, old clothes, and random broken lamps. Most troubling: the lights are starting to go out with frequency, plunging the town into total darkness and bringing its daily activities to a halt.

In Ember, 12 year-olds are assigned a job when they finish their last year of school. The main character, Lina Mayfleet, is initially assigned a dreaded job in the city’s underground Pipeworks, but a boy in her class named Doon unexpectedly offers to switch with her. He has been assigned the job of messenger, which entails running messages all over the town (the only way townspeople have to get in touch with each other). They each set off for their new roles, where they make disturbing discoveries about the state of the town’s infrastructure (bad) and the morals of its leadership (worse).

Can Lina and Doon find a way to save Ember from its inevitable demise, or will they be stopped by the evil Mayor and his henchmen? Where *is* Ember, and how did it come to be? What is the significance of the strange messages Lina finds in a locked box in her apartment, and do they hold the key to saving the town?

The City of Ember was a relatively quick, suspenseful read. Like I said, I don’t read much dystopian fiction, and I suspect that devotees of this category might find the book pretty predictable. But I found it fresh and surprising, and I think that middle grade readers will also enjoy learning about this very different world and its inhabitants. Lina is a compelling heroine – creative and brave and loyal. The answers to the questions of Ember’s existence are thought-provoking and should prompt a good discussion among the girls about authority and societies for our first meeting back after the summer.

 

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THE VACATIONERS by Emma Straub


Vacation read #1 was, appropriately, The Vacationers by Emma Straub. This book has been getting all sorts of buzz and attention this summer, and when I spotted it in the library without a waiting list, I grabbed it while I could.

The Vacationers is about the Post family of Manhattan – mom Franny, a food critic; dad Jim, a magazine editor; son Bobby, a failing realtor in Miami; and daughter Sylvia, a recent high school graduate en route to Brown in the fall. The family is in crisis – Jim has been let go from his job because of an affair with a young editorial assistant, and Franny, needless to say, is furious with him. She views their upcoming two-week vacation in Mallorca as the time to decide whether to let him stay or kick him out. Sylvia is desperate to get to college, where she can get away from her small class of private school friends and reinvent herself. And Bobby, who is in a dead-end relationship with Carmen, a personal trainer who is 10 years older than he is, must tell his parents that he is in serious debt and needs their help.

Along for the ride are Franny’s best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence, who are awaiting news from an adoption agency about a baby they want to adopt.

Straub puts these seven characters in a beautiful home in Mallorca and lets them stew in their own Mediterranean juices. Simmering tensions between Jim/Franny and Bobby/Carmen eventually reach their apex and conclusions, while the others deal with their own internal issues – guilt, shame, lust, jealousy. Straub knows her characters really well, and she expertly shifts from perspective to perspective, giving extremely realistic glimpses into what they are thinking and feeling. There are lots of little details along the way that paint a vivid picture of this vacation home, making the reader feel like an invisible eighth character in the room. Straub also really understands relationships, both romantic and filial, and nails the little interactions that happen over and over between two people.

The ending is pat, too tidy for the messiness of the chapters that preceded it. But it only takes away a little from an otherwise affecting, well-told story of a family testing its points of vulnerability and emerging on the other side.

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REDEPLOYMENT by Phil Klay

So, a week ago I had my 8-year blogiversary. It’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since I launched EDIWTB on a whim, inspired by blogging as a medium and a desire to marry it with my love of reading. In the blogging world, eight years is pretty long. When I launched the blog, there weren’t that many book bloggers out there. Now, there are thousands of us. But there aren’t a lot of us who have been around for 8 years and have kept at it, and I am proud to say that I am still here. I don’t read nearly as much as a lot of other bloggers, and my post frequency waxes and wanes, but I am still here, reading when I can.

A few stats: in eight years I have posted 872 times, read 317 books, gone to BEA 5  or 6 times, and enjoyed countless conversations with other book lovers in person and online, in comments and on Twitter and Facebook, and loved every second of it. And then, of course, there’s the bookstore in my house, stocked with review copies that publishers have been kind enough to send me.

Here’s to eight more years!


And now to today’s review: Redeployment, by Phil Klay. Redeployment is a collection of stories about life as soldier in Iraq. They are told from a range of perspectives: chaplain, infantry, corpse corps (the people who collect the bodies after attacks), civilian. Some of them take place in Iraq or right after vets have returned home and are trying to re-enter civilian life, while some take place years after the war.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know a whole lot about the military, and a lot of the acronyms and various roles within the whole Iraq operation were unfamiliar to me. I am drawn to fiction about the Iraq war – such a departure from the usual domestic fiction that I read – in part because it is such unfamiliar territory, and because I feel a duty to understand that world and get in the heads of these men who are so far removed from my daily life. Klay did a really incredible job of conveying what they were thinking and what got them through the days in Iraq. His characters are realistic, not noble and singular of mission, but flawed and complex. Klay’s writing is both immensely readable and also breathtakingly powerful. He seamlessly moves from quite disturbing wartime scenes to internal, emotional exploration within a couple of paragraphs, conveying the many layers of complication in our conflict in that troubled area.

A few stories  in Redeployment stood out to me: “Prayer in the Furnace”, about a chaplain stationed in Iraq trying to understand his role in helping Marines process the horrors they’d witnessed (and sometimes brought about); “War Stories”, about a vet hearing his badly disfigured best friend talk about being burned after an IED explosion, and “Money as a Weapons System”, in which a foreign service officer working in reconstruction encounters absurd challenges.

I really liked Redeployment and highly recommend it. I have a few other Iraq fiction books on the TBR list, such as The Yellow Birds and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and am eager to get to them.

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THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller


I have read a lot of Sue Miller books. (Here are a few.) I’ve liked quite a few of them, too, so I was excited to pick up her latest book, The Arsonist, at BEA, and was also lucky to land a review copy of the audiobook version.

The Arsonist takes place in New Hampshire post-9/11. It’s summer, and the town of Pomeroy is soon to play host to the “flatlanders” who spend three months of the year at their summer homes, during which they coexist mostly peacefully with the full-time New Hampshire residents of the town. But just as the summer residents start descending, those summer homes start going up in flames, putting everyone on edge and jumpstarting a police investigation. The Arsonist is also about Frankie Rawley, an expat who has returned to the U.S. after many years living in Africa doing hunger aid work. She is staying with her parents, Sylvie and Alfie Rawley, who have retired to Pomeroy after years in academia. Frankie’s return to the U.S. and to her parents’ home coincides with the first fire.

Miller weaves these two plots – first, the tension in Pomeroy caused by the arsons and the cleave between summer and full-time residents, and second, Frankie’s disorientation upon returning to the U.S. and her romance with a local newspaperman named Bud,  a transplant to New Hampshire from Washington, DC – skillfully throughout the novel. The fires heat up  literally, while Frankie and Bud’s romance heats up figuratively. Frankie, though, after years of “temporizing” in Africa with a shifting cast of colleagues, is incapable to committing emotionally, to a person or to a place. She’s sort of floating through her life, insulated from emotion, with no real roots anywhere, which makes her romance with Bud a fragile one.

I found The Arsonist, like Frankie, to be a little cold. I had trouble feeling invested in either Frankie or Pomeroy. I was curious to know who set the fires, and whether Frankie and Bud would develop into anything, but I didn’t care that much. A subplot involving Alfie’s retreat into Alzheimer’s was sad but ultimately too clinical for me. These sturdy, unemotional New Englanders were too restrained, too controlled for me to feel emotionally connected to The Arsonist.

I was a bit disappointed by the book given how much I’ve enjoyed Miller’s other works.

I listened to The Arsonist on audio. It was narrated by Miller herself, and I thought she did a pretty good job with it. I always appreciate an author narration, because you know you’re hearing the characters as they were intended. But I felt like Miller was overly enamored of Frankie – she performed Frankie in this earnest, sympathetic voice that made me even more irritated with the character. I wonder if I would have felt that way if I had read the book instead of listening to it.

A decent read, but not my favorite by this author.

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DNF ALERT! BITTERSWEET by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Folks, it appears that we are in a DNF situation.

I requested Bittersweet from the library because breathless reviews told me that it would be impossible to put down, that it was one of THE reads of the summer. It’s about a girl who goes home with her college roommate to a compound in New Hampshire where the roommate’s large, rich family spends its summers. Shadows and secrets abound.

I started Bittersweet last week, and am about 120 pages in. Now the book is overdue; I can’t extend it because it has holds at the library; and I am going to give up and not finish it. I can’t remember the last time I  didn’t finish a book. Here’s why I am giving up:

  1. 1. It just isn’t grabbing me. I’ve had long stretches to read (ie cross-country flights) and I couldn’t get into it.
  2. I think I got my fill of rich WASPs on summer compounds with We Were Liars.
  3. The characters are inscrutable and inconsistent, in addition to being unlikeable.
  4. I went on Goodreads and learned the Big Secrets from people’s spoiler reviews.
  5. I cannot stand having overdue books. Like the Tell Tale Heart beating beneath the floorboards, overdue library books eat at me, emitting a disapproving glow from wherever they are in the house until I return them. This one is a week (!) late.

So I’ve blown a whole summer week on Bittersweet and can’t even add it to my yearly book count. Oh well. Life’s too short; I’m moving on.

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