THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate

Our final mother-daughter book club read of 2015 was the 2013 Newbery Medal-winning The One And Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. It’s the story of Ivan, a captive gorilla who has been living in a glass cage in a roadside mall for 27 years. Memories about his childhood in the wild, his deceased sister, and his strange years living with his keeper in a house are all painful for Ivan, so he mostly focuses on the present and the other animals in the roadside mall – Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. Ivan also paints (his paintings are available in the mall gift shop) and sometimes interacts with the humans who press their faces against the glass walls of his cage. A rather depressing existence.

The mall falls upon hard times, and in order to get more visitors, its owner buys a young elephant who has been captured from the wild. Ruby is wary and defensive at first, but thanks to Stella’s coddling and calming, she become more interactive. She reluctantly participates in the tricks her new owner trains her to do, but she questions him, and the whole setup, from the start. When Stella dies from a foot infection, she extracts a deathbed promise from Ivan that he will take care of Ruby and get her out of captivity, so that she doesn’t spend her life the way Stella did.

How will complacent (depressed?) Ivan find a way to get Ruby – and himself – out of the mall? And what will they find when they get out?

The One And Only Ivan is a moving – often very sad – exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, friendship, keeping hope alive, and making a change. It sparked a good discussion among our group of 11 year-olds about whether zoos are positive places for animals and how animals think and communicate. We all felt deeply for these creatures and were very sad about the way they were treated, though we also sympathized not only with the animals’ handler but also the man who ran the mall, who cared about them in his own way. It’s a very easy book to read, with short chapters and sentences that convey what Ivan is thinking, but the themes addressed are not simple or easy.

The girls in the book club liked The One And Only Ivan quite a bit, and for many of them it ranked among their two favorite books of the year.

THE SWEETHEART DEAL by Polly Dugan

[First, a note – somewhere along the way, I stopped including the Depressing-o-Meter in my reviews. I miss it. I think I am going to add it back in. For the newbies, it measures, on a scale of 1 to 10, how depressing the reviewed book is. Most books reviewed on EDIWTB fall into the 6-9 category.]

Last year, I reviewed a collection of short stories by Polly Dugan called So Much A Part Of You. I really enjoyed it, and noted that she had a novel coming out in 2015 that I was looking forward to reading. That novel is now out and it’s called The Sweetheart Deal.

Don’t be misled by the cozy domestic photo on the cover, or by the plot – firefighter husband dies in an accident and best friend moves in to help widow, who is unaware that husband once made best friend sign an agreement that he would take care of widow if anything ever happened to husband – which both suggest conventional women’s fiction with a predictable ending. That’s not really what The Sweetheart Deal is.

Dugan’s writing is spare and matter-of fact. The Sweetheart Deal is told from multiple perspectives – wife Audrey, best friend Garrett, and Audrey’s three sons, switching off each chapter. I liked her attention to detail and the very realistic way that she described how the characters felt and related to each other. I felt like I was in the room with them, watching familiar scenes unfold in ways that made perfect sense. Dugan’s depiction of grief was pretty powerful, especially from Audrey’s perspective. There is a scene that really stuck with me, where Audrey is so incapable of functioning that she can’t even pull an outfit together to leave the house. Her interactions with her sons also seemed very accurate to me.

Of course the main focus of the book is the relationship between Garrett and Audrey. That was the weaker link in the story. I didn’t doubt that the two developed feelings for each other, but I wanted to know why. In order to root for them as a couple and believe that they were right for each other outside of Garrett’s promise to his best friend, I needed to see stronger evidence of their independent connection. Garrett knew Audrey for many years before he flew to Portland to help her through her grief. What did he think of her then, and how did his feelings change, or emerge, when he got to Portland? These questions nagged at me a little while I was reading the book. I just wanted more.

Overall, though, The Sweetheart Deal is readable, engrossing and moving. It’s a small story in scope, with only a handful of characters, but it takes on big, universal issues with understanding and empathy. It wasn’t a perfect read, but it was definitely worth the time. I hope Dugan has more novels in her.

Depressing-0-Meter: 7. It’s about death and grieving, so a 7 is actually pretty good.

 

Summer Reading: A Crowdsourced Recommendation List

Summer is already a few weeks in, so I am a little behind, but here is a list of summer reading suggestions collected from my Facebook friends and people who follow the EDIWTB Facebook page. There’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, new and not-as-new, and even some YA and poetry thrown in. Wherever I’ve read the book that was recommended, I’ve linked to my review too.

Enjoy, and happy summer reading!

Fiction

All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Big Little Lies and The Hypnotist’s Love Story, Liane Moriarty (see my reviews of other Moriarty books What Alice Forgot and The Husband’s Secret)

The Circle, Dave Eggars

Attachments, Rainbow Rowell

A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson

Elena Ferrante’s Naples series, starting with My Brilliant Friend

The Sound Of Glass, Karen White

The House of Hawthorne, Erika Robuck

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

The Shore, Sara Taylor

The Collected Stories, Breece D’J Pancake

The Sunlit Night, Rebecca Dinerstein

Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper, Hilary Liftin (on sale 7/21) 

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli 

The Storied Life Of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

Some Luck and Early Warning, Jane Smiley (reviewed here and here)

The Girl On The Train, Paula Hawkins (reviewed here)

The Children Act, Ian McEwan (reviewed here)

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

The Narrow Road To The Deep North, Richard Flanagan

Euphoria, Lily King

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (reviewed here)

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Redeployment, Phil Klay (reviewed here)

Fourth Of July Creek, Smith Henderson

Beach Town, Mary Kay Andrews

Summer Secrets, Jane Green

The Daddy Diaries, Joshua Braff

The Cake Therapist, Judith Fertig

Girl Of My Dreams, Peter Davis

The Secret Of Magic, Deborah Johnson

A Court Of Thorns And Roses, Sarah Maas

Star Craving Mad, Elise Miller (out 8/4)

Nonfiction

Destiny Of The Republic: A Tale Of Madness, Medicine And The Murder Of A President, Candice Millard

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania, Erik Larson

The Skies Belong To Us: Love And Terror In The Golden Age Of Hijacking, Brendan Koerner

All The Truth Is Out, Matt Bai

The Real Thing: Lessons On Love And Life From A Wedding Reporter’s Notebook, Ellen McCarthy

Paper Love: Searching For The Girl My Grandfather Left Behind: Sarah Wildman – non-fiction

An Invisible Thread: The True Story Of An 11-Year-Old Panhandler, A Busy Sales Executive, And An Unlikely Meeting with Destiny, Laura Schroff

The Wright Brothers, David McCullough

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (reviewed here)

Devil In The Grove: Thurgood Marshall, The Groveland Boys, And The Dawn Of A New America, Gilbert King

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, Peter Hessler

The Three-Day Promise, Donald Chung

Young Adult

I’ll Give You The Sun, Jandy Nelson

The Stellow Project – Shari Becker

One Thing Stolen, Beth Kephart

 

Poetry

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, Jeannine Hall Gailey

Ohio Violence, Alison Stine

Banned For Life, Arlene Ang

Vessel, Parneshia Jones

Classics

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Peyton Place, Grace Metalious

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

The Age Of Innocence, Edith Wharton

COUPLE MECHANICS by Nelly Alard

The first book I picked up after BEA was an ARC I got at the blogger-publicist speed dating event on the last day of the conference. It’s not on sale until January 2016, which doesn’t make it the best candidate for a blog post in June, but it was what called to me when I opened my BEA box, so I went with it. Sorry to publish a review for a book you can’t get for 6 more months! (Decent book bloggers don’t do this. They write the review now and post it in 6 months, or they have a better system that tells them when to read which books. Sadly, I am not that organized, and when I finally finish a book, I need to publish the review or otherwise there won’t be any posts on the blog.)

The book is Couple Mechanics by Nelly Alard. It’s about a couple, Juliette and Olivier, who live in Paris with two small children and who are coping with the immediate aftermath of Olivier’s admission that he has had an affair. The book follows the next few months as Juliette decides how to deal with this news and Olivier tries to break things off with the woman he had the affair with. Juliette alternates between fury, despair and resignation, but is pretty committed to her marriage through the book. Olivier, who Alard portrays mostly as a weak, selfish and self-absorbed man, is also committed to Juliette, but at the same time proud of the affair and unable to say the things he needs to make Juliette feel reassured and comfortable.

Couple Mechanics is a small book in that it covers a very narrow slice of territory: this one triangle and the damage it wreaks on Juliette’s marriage. There are larger points about marriage, desire, trust and parenting, but the plot intently follows the immediate aftermath of the affair and how it plays out. It’s almost told in real time, with chapters detailing texts between Olivier and the other woman (Victoire), messages left by Victoire on Olivier’s phone, and the endless conversations Juliette and Olivier have about what he is going to do about Victoire and how they are going to muddle through. You have to really want to follow this triangle closely. There are times when the book gets a little repetitive and claustrophobia-inducing, given the subject matter. But I liked it a lot. Alard is a great writer (my version is a French translation) and misses absolutely nothing. She has it in for Olivier, but given how he behaves, he deserves it. Perhaps she could have made him a little bit contrite, just to give him more dimension, as he’s pretty easy to dislike. Juliette makes for a better protagonist, though she is sometimes a bit passive and quick to defend her insensitive husband.

Couple Mechanics is a smart, insightful novel that I had a hard time putting down. If you can tolerate the subject matter and give in to the type of ride you’re getting on – one with many starts and a slow speed that gives you an excellent view out the window – then it might be for you. It’s a first class ticket to someone else’s train wreck.

I will try to remember to post this again in January 2016.

Books About Disappearing Kids

Have you read a bunch of books about kids who disappear? I know I have. I did a roundup of disappearing kids/parent’s worst nightmare books for the current issue of Readerly. Check it out here.

 

EARLY WARNING by Jane Smiley

I love sweeping family dramas, and Jane Smiley’s three-volume chronicle of the Langdon family is basically the definition of a sweeping family drama. It covers 100 years, with each chapter devoted to one year. The first book, Some Luck, opens in 1920, and the second book, Early Warning, picks up in 1953. I reviewed Some Luck last year (review here), and just finished Early Warning, which came out in April.

The Langdon family consists of Walter and Rosanna, who live on a farm in Iowa, and their 5 kids, and their grandchildren, and eventually their great-grandchildren. (The family gets so big that Smiley includes a family tree at the beginning to keep everyone straight). When Early Warning opens, Walter has just died and America is in the throes of its glory days, the 50s. All but one of the Langdon children have left the farm and moved away, while Joe, the second oldest, has followed in his father’s footsteps as a farmer. Each chapter moves the family’s narrative along by focusing on a few different characters. Sometimes Smiley’s sections are about momentous events, like deaths or weddings, but sometimes she isolates a smaller moment that perfectly crystalizes a relationship or a character’s emotional development. Smiley isn’t the warmest writer in terms of showing emotion, but she certainly allows her readers to develop feelings for her characters.

I am sort of in awe of Smiley’s imagination. She came up with this whole family, and the twists and turns each member goes through, and all of the little details about their lives, in her head. (I know, this is what writers do, but seriously.). And she weaves in politics, and fashion, and the CIA, and the Reverend Jones, and Vietnam, and the Kennedys and Carter and Reagan and so much more. It’s like Forrest Gump, but good.

I’ve seen these Langdons age, and some of them die, over 800 pages, and I feel pretty attached to them at this point. I’m definitely looking forward to volume 3, Golden Age, which comes out in October.

I listened to Early Warning on audio, just as I did with Some Luck. The narration has grown on me. Lorelei King has a very distinct voice that sometimes doesn’t fit with the characters she is narrating, but I’ve gotten used to her and now totally associate her with the Langdon trilogy. I finished the last 60 pages or so in print, and I found myself missing the audio and saying the words in my mind the way Lorelei would (which is the opposite of what I wrote in my Some Luck review). It’s a long series, and I admire her stamina!

Overall, strong second installment. Can’t wait for the third.

BEA 2015

I went to BEA last week, which is always an opportunity for me to re-connect with the book blogging world and get all excited about books again. Reading has fallen way down my priority list the last few months, pushed down by family stuff, Nats baseball, bad reality TV, and work (not necessarily in that order). But once again I’ve returned from NY recommitted to reading and to my blog.

I also have tons of books coming en route from NY. I picked up a bunch of ARCs, some signed books that I am excited about, and lots of stuff for my kids. I’ll post some pictures once the books arrive. I also went to some interesting panels, like Hot Fall Fiction, Editor’s Picks: Literary Fiction, Middle Grade Fiction Buzz Books, and more. There is a lot of exciting fiction coming out this year.

One great event I went to was a publicist speed dating session. I sat a table with a number of other bloggers/book people and every ten minutes, a new publicist would appear and tell us about 6 or so new titles. Pretty cool. Got a lot of promising books out of that one too.

I also went to the annual audiobook narrator/blogger meetup, which is one of my favorite parts of BEA. I LOVE talking to narrators about audiobooks and the process that goes into making them. Such a cool group of people.

As far as reading goes, I finally finished the second Jane Smiley installment in her new trilogy – Early Warning. I will review it this week. I’ve started the new Judy Blume novel In The Unlikely Event on audio, and picked up a new BEA book last night. So, I’m back!

Here are some pics of the middle grade and kids’ authors I met at BEA, which I took for my kids.

Wendy Mass and her husband Michael Brawer:

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Stuart Gibbs:

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Louis Sachar:

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Rebecca Stead:

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Sandra Boynton:

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Rosemary Wells:

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