ALL THE HAPPINESS YOU DESERVE by Michael Piafsky

All the Happiness You Deserve by Michael Piafsky tracks vignettes from one man’s life from boyhood to grandfatherhood through short chapters – some only as long as 2 pages – that cover a particular event or short period in his life.  The story jumps from the narrator’s painful childhood (his father is gruff and often mean, and his mother and sister disappear for 2 years before returning without an explanation), to his years in college in Boston, a move to Seattle, a career in finance in New York, a disgraceful exit to the midwest, a daughter, a failed marriage and retirement. Scotty’s is an ordinary, unglorious life, with a few peaks and a lot of valleys.

Piafsky’s writing is anything but ordinary, though. He is one gorgeous writer. It took me quite a while to get through All the Happiness You Deserve because I didn’t want to skim through anything in this book. It is full of small, intimate details that convey the narrator’s humanity and really make him known to the reader. He can be maddening, especially as he messes up his life over and over. But Piafsky’s writing is just such a pleasure. Interestingly, All The Happiness You Deserve is written in the second person, which I don’t always love, but it works here.

Did I mention that this is a debut novel?

I don’t think All The Happiness You Deserve got that much attention when it came out. That’s a shame. This unique, beautiful book deserves a wider audience. It’s not an uplifting read – in fact it can be downright sad – but it reminded me why I love reading, and why I am in awe of good writers.

Give it a try.

SMALL MERCIES by Eddie Joyce

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce is a family drama told from alternating perspectives about the Amendolas, a family from Staten Island. The book takes place over one pivotal week in the lives of Gail (the mother), Michael (the father), Peter (one son), Franky (another son), and Tina (the daughter-in-law), who was married to a third son, Bobby, who is now dead. Bobby was a firefighter who was killed in one of the towers on 9/11, and the book takes place ten years later.

When this debut novel opens, Gail is preparing for her grandson Bobby Jr.’s birthday party, which she is hosting at her house. Tina then breaks the news to her that she has been seeing someone, and that she’d like to bring him to the party. This stirs up a lot of emotions for Gail, who is still grieving the loss of her son and feels that Tina’s finding a new boyfriend is a betrayal of her son’s memory. Tina’s news is also the narrative excuse for Joyce to explore how the rest of the family is coping with losing Bobby. The narration goes back and forth between the present day and points in the past, so the reader gets a complete story of each character and how they got to where they were.

I liked Small Mercies quite a bit. I enjoyed the setting – Staten Island, a borough that has always been a bit of a mystery to me – and Joyce’s ability to bring it to  life through his characters. I thought Joyce did a great job getting into their heads and exposing their grief not only about losing Bobby, but for some, about how their lives turned out. They’re all flawed, and have done things they aren’t proud of, but Joyce at least explains why and provides each character’s perspective.

Joyce covers a lot of ground here: 9/11, of course, but also corporate law firms, high school sports, March Madness, the pressure to do what your father did, and the changes modern times have brought to a traditional Italian neighborhood across the river from Manhattan. Joyce is a clean, detailed writer and Small Mercies flowed easily. Despite its subject matter, it is not a heavy or difficult read at all.

I mostly listened to Small Mercies on audio, and the narration by Scott Aiello was excellent. His Staten Island accent was very good (at least I assume so), and he really brought the characters to life. I didn’t love his female voices as much as his male voices – they were a little exaggerated and ironically unfeminine – but I find this to be the case with many male narrators voicing women characters. Overall it was a very good audiobook that enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

If you like modern American family sagas told from multiple perspectives, then Small Mercies is probably right for you. I look forward to reading more from Eddie Joyce.

 

A TENDER STRUGGLE by Krista Bremer

A Tender Struggle: Story of A Marriage (previously published as An Accidental Jihad), by Krista Bremer, is about a non-spiritual Christian who meets Ismail, a Muslim Libyan man 15 years her senior while on a running path in North Carolina. Despite their vast cultural differences, she ends up marrying him and having two children with him. A Tender Struggle is a memoir about Bremer’s journey to understand him and his faith.

I have mixed feelings about this book.

On the plus side: Bremer is a beautiful writer. Her memoir is clear, eloquent and totally honest. I don’t think she held back at all in writing this book. She shares great detail about her visit to Libya to meet Ismail’s family and the isolation, boredom, and frustration she felt during that visit, when she couldn’t speak the language and was usually relegated to sitting silently with women she couldn’t understand. She is frustrated by her husband’s otherness – his need to bargain, even at the mall; his impatience with Christmas; his stubborn insistence on getting their son circumcised. But she’s also honest about her attraction and devotion to him, and the completeness with which she gives herself over to their relationship.

On the minus side: I found it strange how little Bremer tried to understand her husband’s faith until the end of the book (several years into their marriage). How could she have married him and had so little curiosity about why he believed what he did? How could they as a couple have communicated so little about how they were going to merge their lives and accommodate both of their traditions? I know that Bremer loved Ismail deeply, but I didn’t feel that I knew him well at the end of the book. (Did she?) All I really knew was that he was very different from her and made living the life she had expected to live close to impossible. On her trip to Libya: while her feelings were understandable, she made little effort to connect with her husband’s family, or to express to him her desire to be integrated.

Some people have criticized Bremer as whiny or self-centered. I didn’t find her whiny; I found her pretty relatable. I just found the book a little unrealistic in its depiction of the marriage. Perhaps it is the pacing or organization of the book, but how could it have taken so long for her to take an interest in Islam? When she finally did, it felt rushed and a little insincere. As a reader, I never really caught up with her.

I will say this: Bremer totally nailed the reason why I don’t like listening to NPR: “Ismail always listened to public radio in the car, and I usually objected to its litany of bad news, its droning analysis of the same intractable problems”. Yes, that.

So a mixed review from me on this one. I loved the writing but felt a little bereft at the end. I wanted to know more.

HAUSFRAU by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau is the story of Anna, an American expat married to a Swiss banker living outside of Zurich. She stays at home with her three children, living the bored, lonely life of a suburban housewife who – even worse – can’t speak the language of the country she’s living in. Anna is depressed, antisocial, and self-absorbed. Her husband, Bruno, is brusque and unemotional, and while they occasionally connect sexually, there is little emotional intimacy between them. Anna embarks on a series of reckless of affairs, most of which don’t bring her any satisfaction or fulfillment beyond the fleeting and physical. Hausfrau follows Anna for six months or so as she spirals downward, increasingly less able to control her impulses and further removed from her responsibilities to her family. Even after she resolves to recommit to her husband, she doesn’t untangle herself completely from her affairs and makes poor decisions with serious ramifications.

Anna is relentlessly passive, letting things happen to her and exerting almost no control over her reactions and participation. She enters into a friendship with a woman from her German class almost entirely unwillingly, letting herself be sucked in to the relationship with no enthusiasm. She knows that her mother-in-law, who takes care of her young daughter on her many afternoons away from home, is disapproving and resentful, but she never confronts her or apologizes. And she endures her husband’s bad moods and benign neglect without complaint or confrontation. She participates in most of her life with the barest of energy, with the exception of her affairs, which at least merit her physical presence.

Interspersed with Anna’s story are excerpts from her sessions with a psychoanalyst, who tries to help Anna understand herself better by questioning her motivations and frustrations (and basically answering all of Anna’s questions with her own).

People seem to have strong reactions one way or the other to Hausfrau. Either they love Essbaum’s poetic writing and exploration of morality, or they hate Anna and find the book too dark and sexually graphic. I fell mostly into the first camp. I liked the writing a lot, found the setting remote and interesting, and thought that Anna was interesting in a “I can’t look away” kind of way. She is maddening and not very likeable, to be sure, but there were some universal themes in the book that I enjoyed exploring. I did not like the psychoanalysis sections. I didn’t understand a lot of them, or found them boring, or both. But they do help to paint the picture of Anna’s despair and desire to get at the heart of something, even if she doesn’t know what it is. She also wasn’t totally honest with the therapist, so the utility of the sessions was necessarily limited.

I listened to Hausfrau mostly on audio. The narration by Mozhan Marno was excellent. She mastered many accents, especially Bruno’s and the therapist’s, and they all seemed totally authentic. I loved her Bruno – she just captured him perfectly. One challenge to the audio – the book jumps around a lot, both in time and in plot thread, so there’s a risk that the audio version would be challenging to a listener without paragraph cues. But I found it really easy to follow.

MILD SPOILER AHEAD

I’ve waited a week since finishing Hausfrau to write this post, trying to see how it would sit with me after some time off. I think I liked it more in the beginning than in the end. Ultimately, Anna’s situation was just too hopeless. I wanted some redemption, some change to make her life more bearable, but it never came. In fact, it just got worse. Essbaum’s writing is amazing, and there is a lot of compelling stuff in here, but it was too bleak even for me. (And that says a lot.)

(How gorgeous is that cover, though?)

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

It must be really fun to write dystopian fiction. You can create worlds that are limited only by your imagination and what the human body can realistically endure. I tend to read realistic fiction, but the few times I’ve ventured into dystopian territory, I have been impressed by the creativity and originality in those works. (The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker comes to mind.)

Station Eleven falls into this category. Emily St. John Mandel’s deeply moving novel takes place fifteen years after a pandemic, the Georgia Flu, has claimed over 99% of the world’s population. All of the technology that defined the modern age – electricity, transportation by car and plane, the Internet, computers, medicine, etc. – is gone. Geographic borders have become meaningless, as people now live in very small communities, often congregating in formerly public spaces like Walmarts, airports, and restaurants. Other than traveling by foot from place to place, there is no way of knowing who else – if anyone – is still around.

Station Eleven follows a few different characters, relating their pre- and post-flu lives. The pre-flu plot centers around Arthur, an aging actor performing King Lear in a Toronto theater just as the flu is racing through America. He dies of a heart attack while on the stage. Among those who are affected by his death are Jeevan, a paramedic who tries to revive him; Kristen, a child actress performing with him; Clark, his best friend; Miranda, his ex-wife; and Elizabeth, another ex-wife with whom he had a son, Tyler. Station Eleven jumps around among these characters’ lives, ultimately following where they were when the flu hit, how they managed to survive it (or not), and where they are now, fifteen years later. Ultimately, most of them cross paths again in the new world.

Kristen ends up in a traveling theater troupe who roams from town to town through what was once the Midwest, bringing a bit of beauty to the desolation in the form of Shakespeare and classical music. Mandel does not spend time talking about how the citizens of the new world survive day to day (how did they get water? what did they do all day? how did they get new clothes? how did they survive winters living in airports with no heat?). Instead, she focuses more on the psychological impact of the flu and its destruction of culture and connection. That’s why the troupe is so important; it’s a symbol of how desperate both the performers and the audience were for lovely, fragile humanity - which they had lost in a weekend. There is a pervasive feeling of dread and danger throughout the book too, thanks to the vigilante, wild West atmosphere that replaced our ordered, law-enforcing society.

I found Station Eleven to be a thought-provoking, moving book. It took me forever to read – like 4 weeks – because I just couldn’t process too much of it at one time. I absorbed it in small chunks because it kind of exhausted me. But I know people who read it in a weekend, so don’t let that deter you.

There is one incredibly powerful image that comes to mind whenever I think about Station Eleven. When the world had finally grasped the potency of the flu, people started quarantining buildings and shutting people out in an attempt to keep the flu away. Three hundred stranded passengers in a Michigan airport, surrounded by empty planes, watched a final plane land on the runway… and just sit there, silently. No one ever emerged from the sealed plane. Ever. Who decided that those people needed to stay on the plane to protect the uninfected? Who was on the plane? How swift were their deaths? That plane just haunted me.

Station Eleven isn’t a perfect book – there are a lot of loose ends and much that goes unexplained – but I think it was incredibly impressive nonetheless. It has made me look differently at how we live our modern lives and question what’s really important and what would survive if we all disappeared.

Introducing… Readerly Magazine

For the last few years, I have worked on a publication called Bloggers Recommend. I manage its Facebook page and have written a number of reviews of new releases and audiobooks over the years.

Readerly_FB2Bloggers Recommend has just been rebranded as Readerly Magazine. Readerly is a “thrice-monthly email magazine featuring articles, interviews, and new release book picks from a community of dedicated readers”. In other words, it’s a magazine about books by people who love them.

Please give Readerly a look and subscribe if you’d like more book-related news in your inbox every month!

Also, I have an article in the current issue of Readerly about Three Depressing Books That Are Totally Worth It. Click through to see what they are…

HOLES by Louis Sachar

Our last Mother-Daughter book club read was Holes by Louis Sachar.

Holes is a weird, dark book. It takes place at a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert, where delinquent boys are sent as punishment for their crimes. While at Camp Green Lake, the boys are required to spend their days digging holes – circular in shape and 5 feet deep and in circumference – in a dried up lake bed. They aren’t told why; they are just told to dig. All day, every day.

Stanley Yelnats has been sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake for a crime he didn’t commit – stealing a famous baseball player’s sneakers which had been donated to benefit a homeless shelter. Stanley was convicted of stealing the shoes, and arrives at Camp Green Lake resigned to serve his time there. He’s an overweight, out of shape, unpopular boy, but after his arrival at Green Lake, he is eventually accepted by the other boys there and starts to fit in. He gets in better shape from the unending digging, and even starts teaching one of his fellow campmates how to read. But Stanley carries with him a curse that was delivered on his family a few generations before, and he believes it is the Yelnats’ fate to fail, despite his increasing self-confidence.

The boys in Stanley’s group figure out that they are digging the holes because the warden is trying to find something that is buried in the lake bed. When Stanley finds a lipstick case that is of great interest to the warden, the boys’ desire to find whatever else might be buried – and possibly put the endless digging to rest – only intensifies.

Holes reminded me of a fable. There are some elements of the fantastic, like lethal spotted lizards who are repelled by the smell of onions, as well as coincidences and plot twists that steer the book strongly off of the path of realistic fiction. And it’s a dark story, with some pretty awful authority figures and a lot of greed to go around. But it kept my attention, and it certainly kept my daughters’ attention. I was surprised by how high the girls in the book club rated it – most gave it a 9 or a 10. We had a good discussion about what they would do if they were in the boys’ shoes, and whether Camp Green Lake was worse than jail (everyone thought it was).

By the way, it had a happy ending.

Holes was an interesting, offbeat pick for middle grade readers.