THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST by Ann Hood

Oh, this is a mess of a book.

Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most is about Ava, a middle-aged woman living in Providence who has a lot going on. Her husband has left her for another woman. Her troubled daughter is studying abroad in Italy, but she’s not answering Ava’s emails. She’s still dealing with residual sadness over the deaths of her younger sister and mother when she was young. And she has joined a new book club with some eligible, single men in it, two of whom seem to be interested in her.

I wish Hood’s editor had told her to pick just two plots and focus on those. Because there were simply too many stories to tell at once.

The chapters about Ava’s daughter Maggie – who it turns out is a drug addict – are harrowing. (Plus she’s a pretty hateful person.)

The chapters about the deaths of her mother and sister are sad, but that plot ends up with a twist that really makes no sense and is very unrealistic.

The chapters about the book club, whose participants each pick the book that has mattered most to them in life, had the most promise, but I hated that they all picked such predictable books (The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina) and I found the book club discussions kind of hard to follow. (Also, it appeared that no one other than the person who had picked these books had ever read them before. ??)

The chapters about the men in Ava’s life were pretty ridiculous. I’ve basically read them before in other books and they didn’t really fit in here, and when her ex-husband drifted back into her life with regret about how it all ended, I was fed up. (Where did *that* come from?) Unsatisfying.

And there are a bunch of random coincidences that tried my patience.

In the end, The Book That Matters Most didn’t hang together well and was unsatisfying. Threads were dropped and relationships were left unresolved.

Need I go on?

The best thing I found in this book was the following quote, which I loved, and will try to remember every day.

“To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first of last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”

 

 

June Is Audiobook Month Blog Tour and Giveaway

It’s June! My favorite month because of the long days, the glorious weather, and the promise of summer ahead. It’s also Audiobook Month, the annual celebration of all things related to audiobooks.

I’ve been very vocal here on EDIWTB about my love of audiobooks. I got hooked when I started listening about 8 years ago. I always have an audiobook going in the car, and listening has not only allowed me to add many more books to my list each year, but it has given me a whole new appreciation for the genre. I am obsessed with audiobooks – how they are cast, produced and performed. Writing this blog has luckily given me the opportunity to get to know some narrators, and I think they are some of the coolest people on the planet.

So I was very excited when I was asked to participate in a blog tour for June Is Audiobook Month. First, check out five awesome audiobooks below, if you’re looking for a new listen. Second, check out the other posts in the tour, which will continue throughout June with many more audiobook recommendations from other bloggers. And finally, leave me a comment below with the name of a favorite audiobook to enter into a contest to win an awesome giveaway: three free downloads from Audiobooks.com and a pair of headphones!

5 recent audiobooks that I loved:

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal is my favorite book so far of 2017, and the audio was just as good as the print. Authentic Minnesotan accents and empathetic narration beautifully matched this treasure of a book. I recommend it to anyone who will listen to me! Give it a try on audio. Narrators: Amy Ryan and Michael Struhlbarg.

The Risen by Ron Rash. This is a haunting story, simply and beautifully told, and the audio version is just perfect. The narrator wonderfully captured the troubled, dreamy Southern protagonist and brought this story to life. It’s a short listen and totally worth it. Narrator: Richard Ferrone.

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters. Don’t confuse this book with Underground Railroad, which came out at the same time. This one imagines a United States where slavery was never abolished. It’s a thought-provoking, dystopian thriller performed by an excellent narrator who expertly conveyed a wide range of emotion. Narrator: William DeMerritt.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I thought the narration of this unforgettable Iraq War novel was just perfect. So many accents, emotions, sound effects – all nailed by the audio. I didn’t love the women’s voices, but that’s a minor quibble. Pick this one up. Narrator: Oliver Wymer.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. If you haven’t read this book yet, give it a try on audio. The narration of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning World War II novel is calm and even, despite its many tense and horrific moments. The audio is long, but it goes quickly as the suspense ratchets up. Narrator: Zach Appelman.

Leave me a comment below with your favorite audiobook to be entered into the contest, and be sure to check out the other blog posts on the tour!

CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is not unlike her earlier books: full of sad, lonely characters who have suffered cruel twists of fate trying to find happiness in challenging circumstances. In this most recent novel, 16 year-old Lucy has run off with her 30 year-old teacher William, a hippie who has been fired for not adhering to the traditional curriculum. It’s the 60s, and William’s talk of running away to be free and in love persuades the immature teenager to leave her sister Charlotte and her much older adoptive mother, Iris. Unsurprisingly, life in the small rural town William takes Lucy to is isolating and boring, while he goes off to work every day but forbids her from talking to anyone or contacting her family because she is underage.

Cruel Beautiful World is a bit of a thriller – what will happen to Lucy? can she escape from angry, controlling William? When it doesn’t all go as planned, who will find out, and will justice be served? Interspersed with Lucy’s story are the offshoot stories of Iris, Charlotte, and Patrick, a widower whom Lucy secretly befriends during her long, lonely days. I enjoyed the explorations of these characters, and I think that is where Leavitt is at her strongest. She takes her time explaining how her characters became the people they are, and she imbues them each with dignity, empathy and just enough hope to keep the reader invested.

The story of Lucy and William was much more problematic for me. William is a child predator: emotionally abusive and unconscionably selfish. I know that Leavitt intends for the reader to understand that about him – in interviews, she said she based him on a real-life controlling partner – but shockingly, she sort of lets him off the hook in the end. It’s as if she wants the reader to wonder if he were really that bad. (!)  (Yes, he was.) Also, I found it unrealistic that Lucy would have kept silent for so long. She had opportunities for escape and didn’t take them. I wasn’t convinced enough of her love for (or fear of ) William that she would have stayed with him that long. She was immature and selfish herself, and I think in the end she would have just done what she wanted.

So Cruel Beautiful World was a mixed bag for me. I loved the classic Leavitt touches but found the underlying plot problematic.

I listened to Cruel Beautiful World on audio. Xe Sands did a masterful, restrained performance, especially during the Iris chapters. Her smooth, understated delivery was perfect for the book. I did wonder whether she was as frustrated with the main characters as I was!

 

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie

Our mother-daughter book club read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for our most recent meeting. It’s about Junior, a dorky teenager living on an Indian reservation who makes the unprecedented move of transferring from his reservation high school to an all-white school 22 miles away. Like most of the people who live on the reservation, Junior is very poor. He has attended 42 funerals in his short life, most due to alcohol-related accidents and diseases. His parents are loving, but his father is an alcoholic and neither parent is capable of providing Junior with much support, emotional or financial.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about Junior’s attempt to fit in at his new school, among the rich white kids who have iPods and cars and three pairs of jeans, while maintaining his relationships back on the reservation, where he is deeply resented for his “desertion” of the tribe and pursuit of success. It’s funny, wry and very easy to read, but it’s not a light book. Alexie tackles racism, poverty, alcoholism, bullying, serious health issues and depression in the book, and it can be depressing. But Junior has hope that he can improve his life, and that he can rise above his childhood and succeed. He finds the good among the rich kids at the new school, and he forgives his old friends who turn on him when he returns to his old high school for a basketball game. He recognizes his parents’ limitations, but he loves them anyway.

I really liked The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, just more depressing. Junior is a cartoonist, and the cartoons featured throughout the book are poignant and funny at the same time. The girls in book club were moved by the condition of the reservation and the lack of hope so many of its residents felt. They were struck by how few options Native Americans have to improve their lives.

I recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for a range of ages. Definitely worth a read.

Podcast: Memorial Day Weekend New Releases

I am a little behind on reviews – have two to write. I’ve been reading, just not reviewing! Soon to come: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt.

If you’re looking for new books for Memorial Day weekend, Nicole and I have a brand new Readerly podcast out with lots of irresistible new releases. Check it out (and if you like what you hear, please subscribe and/or leave us a review!)

 

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.

Unbearable, right?

Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.

The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?

Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.

So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.

I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.

Catching Up On The Readerly Report

Nicole Bonia and I have increased the frequency of our Readerly Report podcast episodes… have you checked the show out recently? Last week we posted an episode about the most disturbing books we’ve ever read, and each month we also discuss new releases that have caught our eye and books we’ve recently finished. Please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and if you like what you hear, leave us a review. If you have ideas for future episodes, we’d love to hear those too!

Thanks, and happy listening!