I MARRIED YOU FOR HAPPINESS by Lily Tuck

Lily Tuck’s I Married You For Happiness takes place as Nina, a woman in her late sixties, lies in bed next to her husband Philip, who has just died suddenly of a heart attack. The book is not linear, but instead jumps around in time and topic as Nina passes the night next to her husband.

Nina is a painter and Philip is a mathematician. They met in Paris, but now live in Massachusetts. Much of the book consists of Nina’s memories of how they met and their early lives together, but Nina’s thoughts also touch on their daughter Louise, trips they took as a family, Philip’s math lessons, and even affairs she had with other men. She flits from topic to topic in a stream of consciousness, as memories spur other memories and images swirl around in her mind.

I admire Tuck’s effort to capture how people really think (or at least how I think), with detours and interlopers intruding on whatever is occupying her mind at the moment. She also paints a poignant picture of Nina and Philip’s marriage, with many moments of humor, passion and affection compiled from years of meals, trips and just general coexistence. Nina is not perfect – she sometimes lies and sleeps with other men – but she is devoted to Philip and absolutely devastated by losing him.

Math themes are woven throughout the book – theories of probability and attempts to solve questions about death and human behavior. The contrast between Nina’s artistic sensibilities and Philip’s mathematical mind shows up repeatedly in their marriage, through her impatience with his need to solve everything and his impatience with her inability to understand complicated concepts. But Tuck convincingly establishes the foundation of their marriage, from their first meeting in a café to their comfortable academic life in Massachusetts.

I liked I Married You For Happiness, but I didn’t love it. I’ve enjoyed other books written in a similar stream of consciousness style – Susan Minot’s Evening comes to mind, which I read ages ago and adored – but found this one sort of boring. Maybe it’s because the same things kept recurring – beach vacations, meals, Philip’s math, other men finding Nina attractive. The image resulting from Tuck’s many brush strokes wasn’t as rich as I’d have liked. It was all pleasant, but I had no problem putting the book down.

Depressing-o-Meter: The book is sad because the husband has just died, but that’s really the only depressing thing that happens.  5 out of 10

Room: Book vs. Movie

download (25)I haven’t done a book vs. movie post in a while, even though I have seen movies in the last few years that were based on books I’ve read (like Gone Girl). But I was inspired to write this post after seeing the movie adaptation of Room by Emma Donoghue, a book I read in 2010. Both are excellent.

Both the movie and the book versions of Room deal with a very painful and difficult subject: the imprisonment of a young woman and later, her son, in a small garden shed for 7 years by a sadistic man who kidnapped her off the street when she was 17. Ma, as she is known in both versions, has worked to create a stimulating and nurturing world for her son Jack, while protecting him from witnessing the nightly visits from her captor. The space they live in is tiny and claustrophobia-inducing, but she manages to get through the years with toys made from recycled trash, five books, a TV and her son’s imagination.

Shortly after the book and movie open, Ma decides it is time to make an extremely risky move to try to save herself and Jack. The escape from the shed is extremely harrowing, both in print and on screen (I actually had to watch it sped up even though I knew what was going to happen). Its immediate aftermath is also extremely intense.

The second half of both book and movie are about their lives in the world after they are out of the shed. It isn’t as stressful as the first half, but it’s just as intense emotionally, as Ma (named Joy in the movie) tries to reconnect with her parents and suffers a breakdown after a few weeks at home. Watching Jack try to deal with new relationships, an entirely new physical existence and his mother’s moods, is difficult. But both book and movie end on a hopeful note as you see each of them trying to move past what happened.

Emma Donoghue wrote the book and also adapted it for the screen. The book is told from Jack’s perspective, while the movie shifts more broadly to cover Joy’s worldview too. The book is more quirky (it’s told from the mind of a 5 year-old), and, like most movie adaptations, there are a lot of details in the book that are left out in the movie. I think Ma in the book is a little harsher than Joy in the movie, though Joy in the movie is hardly sunny.

Ultimately, I can’t say that one is better than the other. The visual impact of actually seeing the shed, aka Room, and watching the escape, made watching the movie a very intense experience for me. I was crying pretty much through the entire first half of the movie and some parts of the second. It’s one thing to try to imagine the hell Ma lived through, and it’s another to see it. The acting is fantastic – Brie Larson did a great job as Ma, and Jacob Tremblay was perfect as Jack. He remained true to character the whole time, never cloying or overacting. He beautifully conveyed bewilderment, fear, anger, affection – all of the emotions a boy in his situation would have experienced. And Jack’s relationship with his mother was beautiful. Not perfect, but beautiful.

I know there are people who avoided reading Room given the subject matter, and I am sure there are many people who won’t see the movie for the same reason. I won’t try to talk them out of it because I found both to be difficult. But they were so worth it. It’s a story I won’t ever forget.

Advantage: Both.

 

GOLDEN AGE by Jane Smiley

I did it! I made it to the end of Golden Age, last book of the Jane Smiley century trilogy (the first two were Some Luck and Early Warning). The books are about the extended family and progeny of the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa. Each chapter covers a year in the century spanning 1920-2020. Some Luck covered the Depression, World War II and the 50s, with most action centered in Iowa until the young generation started moving away. Early Warning took us through the 80s, touching on Vietnam and the 60s, as the family proliferated through marriages and children were born. Golden Age goes from 1987 to 2020, where the Langdons’ story ends (for now, anyway).

First, I will talk about Golden Age, and then the trilogy overall. Golden Age was my least favorite of the three books. Smiley got a little too political for me. The Iraq war, 9/11, the mortgage crisis, global warming – these plot tentpoles are each seen through the lens of Smiley’s progressive politics, a little too conveniently: a family member dies on one of the planes headed toward the Pentagon, another suffers PTSD post-Afghanistan, family fortunes are lost in 2006 during the mortgage crisis. It all felt a little heavy-handed to me. But like the others in the series, Golden Age is also full of smaller, quieter moments – the moments that make up a life, or a whole bunch of lives. This makes Smiley’s chronicles so poignant. One character in her 70s is asked whether she thinks she has lived through a “golden age”, and she decides that it was a patchwork of sensual memories – stars, a pan of shortbread, her husband – that made her life a golden age, not the global events – wonderful or terrible – that had taken place during her lifetime.

Golden Age, like the period it covers, is darker, more ominous and much less hopeful than the two books that came before it. The last four chapters – 2016-2020 – are downright scary, with glimpses of a dystopia brought about by the accelerating impact of climate change and vigilante violence that cannot be addressed due to budget shortfalls. Scary stuff. I think I would have preferred Smiley end the series when she actually finished the books. The futuristic stuff was a bit too bleak for me.

Reading the trilogy, however, was a very positive experience. As I said in my Some Luck review, I am in awe of Smiley’s imagination, and how she layered this rich, enormous fictional family over her factual knowledge of farming, the environment, politics, the CIA, horse-riding, PTSD… the list goes on and on. It was an admirable experiment, and one Smiley executed beautifully. There were some characters who I enjoyed more than others – Claire, Andy, Jesse – and some who befuddled me – Michael and Richie, Arthur – and others who were just unpleasant. (Janet!). But I feel deeply embedded in their collective lives, and I can’t really believe it’s all over.

I know reading these three books is an investment and it seems kind of overwhelming, but I really recommend the series. It’s a rewarding experience and quite enjoyable at the same time. A crash course in American history!

Like the two books before it, I listened to Golden Age on audio. I had issues with the narrator, Lorelei King, during the first installment, but I got so used to her by the end that those complaints went away. I now can’t imagine having experienced these three books another way. King must have gotten to know these characters so deeply – I’d love to talk to her about what she thought of them. 14 discs is a long time (and that’s just the last book!) but I enjoyed them quite a bit. The brevity of the chapters and even the various threads in each chapter made the audio move along nicely, so even when there were some sections that dragged, they were over quickly.

Great work, Jane Smiley. I hope these books are read widely and for many years to come.

Depressing-o-meter: Too sweeping to be really depressing. 4 out of 10.

THE HUMMINGBIRD by Stephen Kiernan

In Stephen Kiernan’s The Hummingbird, three stories unspool simultaneously. In the first, Deborah Birch, a hospice nurse, is trying to care for and understand her husband Michael, who has recently returned from his third deployment in Iraq and is suffering from PTSD. In the second, Deb cares for an elderly patient, Barclay Reed, who is dying from liver cancer. He proves to be a difficult patient, but Deb learns how to get through to him and ultimately learns from him. The third story is contained in a book written by Professor Reed, a military history scholar, about a Japanese pilot who attacked the coast of Oregon during World War II.

These subplots are connected, of course: Professor Reed helps Deb to understand her husband’s demons, while she helps him ease into his final decline into death. Michael begins to connect with his wife again after he finally shares some of his pain and fears with her. And the story of the Japanese pilot, which I admittedly skimmed, brings the themes of forgiveness and acceptance into relief.

I found the depiction of hospice care and the ways the dying (and their families) can be brought comfort at the end of life to be the most compelling part of the book. Kiernan clearly has some experience with hospice nursing, or he did a lot of research. The sections on PTSD were also interesting, though I found Deb’s patience with her husband a little unrealistic. I probably should have read the Japanese history sections more carefully, but I just couldn’t get into them. I like books about soldiers and veterans, but I don’t enjoy detailed depictions of warfare.

The writing was a little clunky at times. There were distracting cliches that really stood out to me – after Deb’s first visit to Professor Reed, “he’d won [her] heart already – which detracted from the book. Michael’s sudden taking to a dog that Deb brought home, after stating that he was afraid of dogs ever since Iraq – was sudden. And I’m always suspect of characters who call other people “hey, lover”. Who does that? Repeatedly?

So The Hummingbird was a mixed bag for me but I am ultimately glad I read it. The good parts were pretty memorable and gave me a lot of perspective on hospice.

The Depressing-o-Meter is off the charts on this one. (It’s about hospice and PTSD!) 9 out of 10.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE by Joyce Maynard

My first book of 2016 was Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard, and it was a good start to my reading year. I’ve read another book by Maynard before – Labor Day (reviewed here) – and am a big fan.

Under the Influence is about a woman named Helen in her late 30s. She had a rough childhood with emotionally distant parents, and ends up marrying a man who she thought she loved and who provides her with the sense of family she never had growing up. They have a son, Oliver, who is four years old when Helen’s husband announces that he is leaving her for another woman. To deal with her sadness and loneliness, Helen turns to drinking at night after Oliver was in bed and develops a dependence on alcohol. One night, when Oliver wakes up in pain from appendicitis, she drives him to the hospital and is pulled over for drunk driving. Ultimately, she loses custody of Oliver because of the DUI, and her life just craters.

I had a hard time reading the first third of the book because it was so sad. Helen’s loss of her son, with whom she had been incredibly close, was devastating. I am not a particularly emotional reader, but boy did this part of the book affect me.

When Helen is at her most lonely and vulnerable, she meets a charismatic couple named Ava and Swift, and this friendship is really the crux of the novel. Ava and Swift are wealthy, social and generous, and they take Helen under their wing and provide her with the sense of belonging that she so desperately needs. While she doesn’t have her son back, her life slowly starts improving.

As I read Under The Influence, I started to develop a sense of unease that intensified throughout the novel. What was Swift and Ava’s motivation as far as Helen was concerned? What would they eventually expect from her in exchange for their generosity? And what was their relationship really like? The novel evolved from its very sad start into a suspenseful thriller that had me turning the pages very quickly, eager (but also sort of dreading) its resolution.

Maynard is an excellent storyteller. She’s also quite skilled at creating deeply flawed but utterly compelling and sympathetic characters like Helen, who have made some bad, but credible, decisions. I read an uncorrected proof of Under The Influence and noticed some repetitive writing and a few factual inconsistencies that will likely be fixed in the final version, but overall I thought the book was very well-written.

I hope the rest of my 2016 reads are as good as this one was!

Note: Under The Influence comes out at the end of February. I’ll post a reminder!

Depressing-o-Meter: Any book that I have trouble reading because it’s so sad deserves a high rating here. 8 out of 10.

First Book: 2016

Happy New Year!!

Sheila at Book Journey is continuing her tradition of hosting First Book of the Year: 2016. Click through to see what other people are reading on the first day of 2016.

As for me, I am reading Joyce Maynard’s upcoming novel, Under The Influence. It is one of the saddest books I have read in recent memory, but I am having a hard time putting it down. She is an excellent storyteller. Under The Influence comes out in February and I’ll likely review it later this week.

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Happy reading to everyone in the new year!

2015 Reading Year In Review

2015 was not my best year in reading. Life just got the better of me. My daughters’ bedtimes (too late!) and the proliferation of tempting screens all over the house didn’t help me find more time for reading either. I tend to read in spurts, when I’m out of my routine on vacation and can enjoy guilt-free hours where I am not expected to do other stuff. Work trips when I don’t spring for airplane wi-fi also provide nice pockets of time. But in general, finding time to read is becoming more and more of a challenge. In 2016, I will do better!


I also found myself in reader’s rut a few times. I have so many books surrounding me that sometimes I didn’t know where to turn. I need to be more methodical about reading books that are recommended (and get over my bias against books that everyone else has read and loved). There is so much top quality fiction out there that there’s no need to read mediocre books.

Or maybe the problem is what Hugh McGuire expressed in this San Francisco Chronicle article: I am so addicted to the quick hits of social media and my iPhone that I have lost my ability to concentrate on long form media like books. How depressing is that?!

In 2014, I read 48 books, which I was bummed about because I wanted to hit 50. This year was even worse! I only made it to 44 books. 2016 (again!): I will reach 52! A book a week!

Here are my standout reads from 2015:

Best audiobooks were Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce (read by Scott Aiello) and Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (read by Mozhan Marno).

Most disappointing book: In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume.

Most creative read goes to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

For the last three years, I have tracked the Depressing Themes of the books I read, and the lists have been impressive. Here are some of the depressing subjects covered by the books I read in 2015: refusal to give dying child life-changing treatment, loss of a child, teacher in a coma, disappearing daughter, prison camp, apocalypse due to ravaging flu, infidelity, depression, suicide, the Communist revolution in China, 9/11, death of spouse, oppression of caged animals, plane crashes, Scientology, soulless startup, divorce, post-partum depression, mental illness, murder, adult autism, middle grade autism, rape, death of family in a fire, the whole second half of Fates and Furies, murder/suicide by child, disappearing mothers (x6).

The breakdown:

  • 36 fiction, 8 non-fiction
  • 7 repeat authors during 2014: Ian McEwan, Jane Smiley, Polly Dugan, Judy Blume, Hilary Liftin, Jean Kwok, Eli Gottlieb
  • 12 audiobooks
  • 11 male authors, 33 female authors

How was your 2015 in reading? What were the highlights?