PACK UP THE MOON by Rachael Herron (plus giveaway)


Rachael Herron’s Pack Up The Moon is about parenthood, secrets and grief, and the many permutations that each can take in a lifetime.

Kate and Nolan were high school sweethearts whose rosy future abruptly ended with Nolan’s family moved away senior year. Unbeknownst to Nolan, Kate was pregnant when he moved. She never told him, and instead put her infant daughter up for adoption. The baby was adopted by a lesbian couple, who named her Pree.

Twenty two years later, Pree tracks down Kate. In the intervening years, Kate and Nolan reunited and eventually married. They had a son, Robin, who developed cancer at the age of 8. Despite intensive treatments, Robin’s cancer proved fatal, and while he was in the end stages of the disease, Nolan hastened his death by running the car in the garage while they were both in it. Nolan survived, Robin died.

When the book opens, Pree has just found Kate, and Nolan and Kate, now divorced, haven’t been in contact for years other than the occasional email sharing memories of Robin. Nolan has served time in jail for euthanizing his son. Pack Up The Moon explores Kate and Nolan’s guilt – toward each other, toward their children – as well as the secrets they kept from each other over the years, including Kate’s not telling Nolan about Pree, and Nolan remaining silent about what happened the day that Robin died. Pree, meanwhile, has secrets of her own that have propelled her to find Kate and establish a relationship with her.

Pack Up The Moon sounds like a very depressing book (surprise!), and the passages about Robin and his death are certainly very, very sad. But this wasn’t a depressing read. I liked the characters, who were quirky and different. Nolan was pretty interesting to me – a former lawyer now working on a street cleanup crew, the only job he could find after serving jail time for mercy killing his son. Pree is a video game designer and into street art stickers, a subculture that I knew nothing about. Kate was a pretty complicated character too – she seemed rather straightforward at the beginning of the book, but the end reveals many complexities and surprises within.

Some of the book felt unrealistic to me, in particular a scene at the end that took place on a boat, when Kate and Nolan have gathered to spread Robin’s ashes into the San Francisco Bay and Kate has (inexplicably) invited Pree to join. I found the passages describing the interplay between the characters the most convincing and interesting. These flawed but human characters were thrust into rather extraordinary circumstances, and I thought Herron did a good job of trying to predict how they might react. She was also generous in her depiction of the various ways we experience grief. Nolan, for example, found solace at his son’s grave (despite his role in Robin’s death), while Kate couldn’t bring herself to visit it. Kate’s grief about her mother’s death was very different from that about her son’s, while her own mother reacted in different ways to Kate’s giving away a baby at 16 and her losing a son in her 30s.

Pack Up The Moon wasn’t perfect, but it was an interesting read with some characters that have stayed with me in the days since I closed the book.

Depressing-o-Meter: 6.5 (which is surprising given the subject matter)

NAL has offered me a copy of Pack Up The Moon to give away to an EDIWTB reader. If you’d like to win a copy of the book, leave me a comment here and I will pick a winner next Wednesday, March 26. Good luck!

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HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford

It’s never a good sign when you find yourself yelling in frustration in the car as you listen to an audiobook, right?

That happened to me often while listening to Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. I found this book incredibly annoying, for a whole host of reasons.


I have had Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in the house for years – I must have acquired a review copy in 2008, because it still had the publisher’s promo material tucked in when I opened it. I saw the audiobook at the library last month and picked it up, because the premise of this book has always intrigued me. It’s about Henry, a Chinese-American boy growing up in Seattle during World War II, who befriends Keiko, a Japanese-American girl in the private school they both attend. They become fast friends, much to the disapproval of Henry’s father, who, as an immigrant himself, views the Japanese as enemies of both America and China.

Keiko and her family are ultimately moved to internment camps, first in Washington state and then further away in Idaho. Henry, who has fallen in love with Keiko, pines for her, manages to visit her on several occasions, and then spends the rest of his life missing her and wondering what happened to her. He ultimately marries a Chinese girl, has a son, and outlives his wife, who dies of cancer in the mid-80s. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet flips back and forth between 1942 and 1986, as the reader gets caught up in wondering whether Henry will ever find Keiko and enjoy a happy ending.

Here are the main reasons why I disliked this book so much:

1. Oh my god, did it need an editor. Ford repeated himself over… and over… and over… and over again. Like this: “Henry’s father wanted him to go to China. To a place where he didn’t know anyone except some relatives. Relatives he’d never met. Relatives who didn’t speak English. Relatives he couldn’t communicate with.” And then a few pages later, he’d say THE SAME THING AGAIN.

2. It reminded me of a book my 9-year olds might read, in that every last emotion was explained, explicitly. Every comparison, every theme, was stated, as if Ford didn’t trust the reader to grasp anything on his or her own. There was no subtlety AT ALL. The title itself should have been a warning of what was to come.

3. I had a really hard time believing that Henry and Keiko, who were 12 when they met, were in true, lasting love. They were just too young. And while Ford told me over and over that Henry loved Keiko, they didn’t really seem to say much to each other when they were together. Even when they finally “parted” at age 15, I had a hard time accepting that she was the love of his life.

4. There were so many cliches in the book that I thought I was reading a movie script. The generous, wise, older African-American friend. The white bully who got his comeuppance. The deathbed confession by the stubborn father. The ending, in which two people who hadn’t seen each other in 40 years fell back in sync (and in love) just by hearing their old song. Not only did these elements make the book incredibly predictable, but they were annoying and shallow.

I’ll stop there.

I listened to this book on audio, except for the last 20 pages, when I wanted to just finish and be done with it. Surprisingly, the print version didn’t annoy me quite as much as the audio did. I didn’t notice the repetition as much in the print (but the cliches certainly remained!). I thought the narrator was OK while I was listening to it – his accents were a bit exaggerated, but I blamed the book itself for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet‘s shortcomings. Maybe the blame should be shared more equitably.

If you’re tempted by the story and setting, I’d recommend reading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic or When The Emperor Was Divine, which are both about the Japanese internment camps. Save yourself the frustration of reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – it’s not worth it.

Depressing-o-meter: It should be higher than this, but the book was so annoying that it detracted from the emotional power of the story: 5.

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Monthly Column in Bloggers Recommend

The March issue of Bloggers Recommend is out! Very exciting. Lots of intriguing books are coming out this month, including Deployment, which is on my TBR list.

I have started writing a monthly column for Bloggers Recommend. My first column is on page 10 of the March issue, and asks, “Can reading survive in our multitasking world?”

Check out the issue!

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Online Book Club: THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES by Steve Yarbrough

The February online book club pick was The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough. The discussion of that book will take place today here on EDIWTB, with the participants commenting below.


The Realm of Last Chances is about Kristin and Cal Stevens, a married couple who moves from the Central Valley of California to Boston after Kristin is laid off from her college administration job in California. She finds another job at a third-tier college outside Boston, and the two start their lives over again on the East Coast. However, it turns out only to be a fresh start geographically. The couple, who had been growing apart in California, find themselves even more distant from each other in their new home. Cal, who was a handyman  in California, spends his days playing stringed instruments and fixing up their new house. Kristin finds herself embroiled in new but familiar challenges facing college administrators, such as professor plagiarism and tenure negotiations. As the book progresses, we also learn about the skeletons in Kristin and Cal’s closets – failed marriages, broken homes, violence – and how they shaped the main characters.

Matt Drinnan, the Stevens’ neighbor and a man with his own troubled past, meets the couple shortly after their arrival in Massachusetts. Ultimately his relationship with Kristin drives her and Cal further apart, as he seeks his own reinvention and redemption for his own transgressions.

The good: I liked the glimpse The Realm of Last Chances gave into these unusual characters’ lives. I feel like I read so many books about urban thirtysomething parents, and it was refreshing to explore the lives of these struggling middle-aged suburbanites. Yarbrough’s writing is crisp and descriptive. There are themes throughout the book – infidelity, forgiveness, and how well we really know our partners – that I thought Yarbrough skillfully weaved among multiple characters and contexts.

However, I don’t think I really got this book. I found a lot of it implausible – how could Kristin and Cal have been so incurious about each other’s pasts? do people really ask relative strangers to hold them? can one really read lips looking through a window between homes? – and much of the rest of it was either too convenient or just kind of boring. I got to the end of the book, which felt slapped on and too tidy, and wondered what the point was. I didn’t feel very optimistic about these characters’ futures – they just kind of limped off into the sunset.

I enjoyed the beginning of The Realm of Last Chances more than the end. Kristin and Cal’s disorientation upon arriving across the country, her introduction to her new job – those were compelling. As the story progressed, however, it sort of lost me. The plagiarism storyline didn’t make much sense to me – how was Kristin to blame for how the story came to light? – and the grand reveal about Cal’s violent past seemed inopportune.

Depressing-o-meter: 6. It’s gloomy and defeatist at times, but ends on a positive.

Goodreads abounds with very positive reviews of The Realm of Last Chances, so there are clearly many fans of this book out there. I am eager to hear what the other book club participants felt about the book. Did it grab you? Did you find the plot to be plausible? Do tell.

Thanks to Knopf for facilitating the book club!

 

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Book Haul From The Strand

You know what I DON’T need? More books!

But I recently found myself with the opportunity to go to The Strand, which I couldn’t pass up. Thanks to my Goodreads to-read list, I ended up with these books:

photo 1 (1)Here is the list:

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (I have wanted this since it came out; have heard that it is better than The Red Thread)

How to Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

How to Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman (see a theme here?)

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard (coming of age in the 70s)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (highly recommended by Ann Patchett)

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (short stories)

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (have wanted this since it came out too)

Sparta by Roxana Robinson (read the Q&A with Robinson about Sparta here)

If you’ve read any of these, please weigh in! What am I in store for?

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Winners of Recent Giveaways

Congratulations to the winners of recent giveaways on EDIWTB:

The winner of A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner is Kelly S.!

And the winner of The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes is Amy M.!

Thanks to everyone for entering.  More giveaways to come in March.

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DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill

Wow.

That’s what I have to say about Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill.


It’s the kind of book that you try to read slowly, because you want to savor it and make it last as long as possible. You want to sear the passages into your memory so that you can conjure them up later. It’s that good. It kind of snuck up on me – I wasn’t blown away by the first third or so, but by halfway I knew I was holding something pretty special in my hands.

Dept. of Speculation is a fresh, unique take on a pretty common theme: urban parenthood, marriage, adultery. There’s the wife – a writer who came to motherhood somewhat reluctantly but who loves her husband dearly. And there’s the husband, who is steadfast and loving, until he isn’t. (Neither of them are named.).

Dept. of Speculation is sort of a combination of prose and poetry. The paragraphs bounce around a little, from the deep to the mundane. But they weave together to form a beautiful, messy whole that painfully, accurately describes love, motherhood, writing, despair, therapy – all of it. One minute, I’d be laughing out loud at how Offill nailed some aspect of modern motherhood, and the next I’d be gasping at how well she described the acuity of the wife’s vulnerability and sadness.

There is a narrative shift halfway through the book that is significant but still works.

I am finding it hard to review Dept. of Speculation – I think it’s one that you have to experience to get a sense for what it’s about. Pp. 72-73 in particular will take your breath away. Or this line: “The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)”

I could go on and on. Great book. Depressing-o-meter: 7. Though it’s more painful and insightful than depressing, really.

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