Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

“We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.” 

The setting is war-torn Chechnya in 2004. Explosions and disappearances are a way of life. After watching the Russian feds arrest his friend and set his house on fire, Akhmed is relieved to find his friend’s 8-year old daughter Havaa hiding in the woods and knows he must take her to a safe place. Sonya, a talented and overworked surgeon who is Constellationhaunted by the disappearance of her sister, agrees to take in Havaa in exchange for Akhmed’s help at the hospital. Meanwhile, someone is still looking for Havaa.

The heart of the plot takes place over only 5 days, but the whole story unfolds through various character perspectives and flashbacks throughout the previous ten years. At first the setting distracted me from everything else. I knew next to nothing about the Chechen wars and paused in between chapters to do some research and get a better understanding of the history. I was shocked to learn how much of the historical context of the novel is true, but it helped me grasp what the characters were facing and trying to endure.

The book gracefully dives head first into the strength and resilience that people are capable of when duty and dignity calls for it while highlighting the lasting effects of traumatic experience.  The story comes full circle, intertwining together the fates of the characters, materializing meaning in unexpected ways. While there is some hopeful resolution, there also remains a sense of emptiness and loss, which solidifies the book’s powerful impact.

In this book war is life. It’s a haunting story that transported me to a place I’m thankful I’ve never actually been, but it’s important to have exposure to perspectives and experiences different from your own to see what the world for others can be like. This book provided that for me, and it still left me hopeful.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

“The only thing with less character than Chardonnay is wainscoting.” 

A Manhattan housewife lures in and befriends the doormen at her building, but her motive is not what you think. A woman provides a “relocation” service for pageant girls. A writer stands her ground while competing on a reality TV show. From book club secrets to life advice from cats, this collection of twelve stories is darkly comedic yet also steeped in truth.

AmericanHousewifeThe book satirizes the dark side of the feminine mind and the interplay of catty and manipulative relationships. It also emphasizes the strength and intelligence of the female characters as well, ringing the bell of truth at times. I found myself smiling and shaking my head, relating to them and laughing in part at the silliness of myself. I chuckled aloud a few times but then felt slightly disturbed at other times. The characters are witty, sassy, and sinister.

The title led me to think that all of the stories are related to the lives of women who do not work, but that is not the case. Some are housewives, some are writers, and some are undefined, creating a wider range of topics and themes. Also, not all of the stories are plot based. Some of them are written as simple advice or commentary, and I think the piece called Take It From Cats is the best.

However, I much prefer the plot driven stories. My favorites are Dumpster Diving with the Stars, Dead Doormen, and My Novel Is Brought to You By the Good People at Tampax. I loved the incessant and ludicrous procrastination of the character in the last story!

The stories are strange and creative and all very different.  It is a great collection that has something for everyone.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

“The law of probability combined with the law of large numbers states that to beat the odds, sometimes you have to repeat an event an increasing number of times in order to get you to the outcome you desire. The more you do, the closer you get. Or… basically, sometimes you just have to keep going.”

Ed is a software company mogul accused of insider trading, suspended from work, and OnePlusOnewho is avoiding facing his family. Jess is a single mom working two jobs and struggling to provide for her daughter Tanzie, stepson Nicky, and giant dog Norman. When Tanzie, a child highly gifted in math, has a chance to compete in an elite math competition and potentially win enough money to secure a place at a respected private school, Jess will do what it takes to make it happen. Her world collides with Ed’s through a few chance encounters, and Ed suddenly finds himself invested in helping Jess and her kids (and Norman) make it to the math competition, which is just a road trip away. Shenanigans ensue, secrets are revealed, and bonds are forged and strengthened.

Jojo Moyes is a talented writer who creates interesting and memorable characters. This book is no different. Although for me it didn’t quite have the emotional impact as some of her other books, this one is still a rollercoaster ride as the characters struggle to overcome personal challenges. None of them are perfect, and that’s what makes them so relatable yet also unique.

I’m a sucker for the dog in any story, especially a lovable one like Norman who plays a part in the family dynamics and in the plot. I love Jess’s supermom character. Her desperation to provide sometimes propels her forward without thinking her decisions all the way through, but her heart is always in the right place. She is the guiding force for her kids Tanzie and Nicky and is an easy character to root for, even when she’s kicking in the side of someone else’s car. Ed, who is much more selfish, is less likable, but he grew on me through redemptive interactions with Jess and her family. All of the characters learn, grow, and change, which makes for a satisfying read.

This book explores the concepts of family support systems, unconditional love, honesty, and forgiveness. The bullying plot line is a hard and frustrating one, as it should be, but it emphasizes the important themes of leaning to be true to oneself, regardless of the opinions of others. It’s a great story complete with fun, laughs, tears, and drama, and it’s another great book by Jojo Moyes.

4 out of 5 stars

The Unseen World by Liz Moore: A Book Review

“Only humans can hurt one another, Ada thought; only humans falter and betray one another with a stunning, fearsome frequency… She would fail other people throughout her life, inevitably, even those she loved best.” 

Ada’s father David is the most important thing to her. For thirteen years David has beenUnseenWorld her teacher, her best friend, her guide. Ada’s life has revolved entirely around him and his work in his computer science lab, so when David begins to forget things and disappear for hours at a time, Ada’s world as she knows it rapidly changes. As David’s mind disintegrates, Ada must navigate the coming years without him. Life grows more complicated as she moves in with her father’s long time friend, and evidence surfaces that David may not be the person she thinks he is.

I think the experience of admiring and idolizing a parent and then gradually realizing that parents are fallible human beings is something to which everyone can relate.   The reverence with which Ada views her father is so powerful that it’s easy to feel the confusion, frustration, and protectiveness that Ada feels when her father’s health begins to decline.  The relationship between father and daughter is the foundation of the story, and the author does a wonderful job of portraying some of the complexities of that relationship.

The characters are clearly written and consistent, their actions aligning with their personalities so the interpersonal dynamics work well and were convincing. The last third of the book felt a less cohesive for me during the jumps in time back and forth to Ada’s adulthood. I didn’t connect as strongly to the older Ada as I did to the younger one, but perhaps that that’s because we spend less time with her in her adulthood than in her youth.

Still, I liked this book much more than I anticipated. The pacing was consistent through most of the book, and the cryptology as well as the mystery surrounding David’s history and eccentricity kept me interested. As the beginning of the story unfolded, I had so many questions about Ada and her upbringing. I felt like I was slowly turning these small corners, each one revealing another piece of the puzzle, which kept me wanting to keep going along with Ada as things began to unravel.

4 out of 5 stars

 

Book Review: A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Cline

“I want each day to last forever . . . It’s a peculiar kind of dissatisfaction, a bittersweet nostalgia for a moment not yet past.

Inspired by the true story of famous painter Andrew Wyeth and the muse for his PieceofWorldpainting “Christina’s World,” this work of historical fiction ventures into the life of Christina herself. Struck by a degenerative disease at a young age that continued to worsen as time progressed, Christina spent most of her days on her family’s farm, struggling through the hardships of her physical challenges and the relationship challenges in both her personal and familial life. By the end of the story, one has a complete and insightful picture of the woman who became the subject of a piece of art that now hangs in MOMA in New York.

My favorite parts of this book are the ones that describe the simplicity of the sweeping landscape beside the ocean. It conjured images of Maine in my mind, though it’s a place I have never been. I loved the imagery of Christina and her mom venturing to the shore and collecting shells. The Hawthorne farm sounds like the foundation of a peaceful existence, though Christina’s struggles and the family hardships bring one back to a more realistic view of things.

Christina’s defiance of her condition as well as her strength to manage on her own are courageous. Her physical degeneration clearly takes a toll on her mentally and emotionally as well, though I came to realize that gradually, just as I imagine Christina realized it herself. She is determined not to let it affect her but it does anyway. While she wants so much for people to see past her ailment and see her for who she is, she struggles with the exact same thing.

It’s a beautiful but also tragic tale in many ways. I’m not sure I could have moved on so easily from the same missed opportunities in life. The end of Christina’s story however is a loving and satisfying one when she finally gets the thing in life she has always truly wanted. It’s a lovely and wistful book.

4 out of 5 stars

Book Review: The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

“Every two hours Michael Collins had gone out of radio contact for forty-eight minutes when the moon stood between himself and Earth, and during those minutes he was the most alone person in the history of people. Helen still liked to think about that. That had always been her dream: space, not a location within it, just space.”

WanderersHelen, Sergei, and Yoshi are accomplished astronauts chosen by private company Prime Space to embark on the first manned mission to Mars. As part of the initial testing and preparation, they must undergo a 17-month simulation of the expedition, during which the astronauts will face a series of challenges, but none are more challenging than those they face in their own minds. Meanwhile the loved ones closest to the astronauts struggle with their own challenges of facing the separation and figuring out who they are and who they want to be.

The publishers marketed this book as a cross between The Martian and Station Eleven. Readers who crave more of the former will be sorely disappointed. This book has little humor, minimal hard science and engineering, and no sense of urgency. Instead is has the slow and steady pace of introspection. It is much more a character study than a plot driven story.

Despite the slow pace, the writing kept me engaged. The characters were as much a mystery to me as they were to themselves, and it was interesting to experience them unfolding and eventually reaching a deeper sense of understanding, which made for a satisfying ending.

A major concept in the book is the idea that we have multiple versions of ourselves and that we consciously choose to show one face or another to in different situations. The astronauts struggle to put only their most capable and controlled selves forward as they are under constant observation and exist in very tight quarters. Their family on the outside tries to be who they think they are supposed to be, which increases their struggle to be honest and true to themselves. It’s a fascinating concept to me and one to which I relate.

The story presents an interesting juxtaposition of characters that prepare for the new exploration of a planet while simultaneously embarking on new explorations of who they are at their current points in life and in relation to others. Not much happens, but it is a lovely, imaginative, and clever book about the journey of human introspection and relationships.

4 out of 5 stars

 

For the Love of Books

Books are a uniquely portable magic.
-Stephen King

I am a voracious consumer of books, both fiction and nonfiction. My parents taught me to read at an early age, before I even started school. I was the kid in fourth grade that got in trouble for reading a book in her lap instead of listening to the teacher’s lecture.

Many readers indulge as a form of escapism, but the primary reason for my indulgence is different. Reading broadens my horizon in regards to lives of other people, varying perspectives, and worlds different from my own. I think about them in comparison to my own reality, and it helps me to make sense out of the chaos of life. Books lead me to think about my own story and the story of those around me.

There have been phases of my life where I have been less of a reader than others, but since finishing graduate school last year, I have revived reading as a regular indulgence. This left me with an overwhelming thirst for a connection with others who share in the love of books, and thus, I joined a local book club.

It was terrifying showing up at the house of a complete stranger to converse with other complete strangers, but it was the book that fueled me forward. I knew the small talk would end once the book discussion began, and that’s when my nervousness disappeared. The conversation was stimulating and thought provoking, and I was hooked. It feels so satisfying to connect with people over this common interest, and now I am beginning to connect with them on a level that extends beyond our readership.

Not only has this love of books brought me together with new people with different ideas and perspectives, it has expanded my exposure to literature. Each month we read a book in a different genre, which is opening to me different reading experiences and thus different way of seeing the world and harnessing my imagination. It also recently introduced me to Book Riot, which is a source of all things bookish including news of the publishing world, new releases, and book reviews and recommendations. I anxiously await every new podcast episode.

In celebration of my revived love of books and reading, here are some of my favorite reads so far this year:

Earth
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth
– After tragedy strikes, a boy moves with his mom to live with his grandfather in the Kentucky Appalachians. The boy finds solace in his relationship with his wise and rugged grandfather and with his new best friend as they explore the woods. When the town becomes divided over mountain blasting, a camping trip into to the wilderness becomes a fight for survival. It’s gritty and poignant. It’s also the author’s debut, and I can’t wait to read his next book!

 

Lucky
Luckiest Girl Alive – A young woman determined to have it all and close to making it happen is forced to take a hard look at her life when she agrees to participate in a documentary about tragic events that took place when she was in high school. I agree with comparisons to the eerie, dark tone of Gone Girl. It is very well written and kept me deeply engaged to the end.

 

Mice
Of Mice and Men (Classic) – Two drifters find work at a California ranch with dreams of one day having their own piece of land, but difficult situations arrive that force them to face the harshness of reality. It’s a short, simple story but it hit me hard. I had to take some time to absorb the ending before I could start another book. It’s not a fun-filled happy book, but it’s an important one and is an example of one that is perfectly written.

 

War
Girl at War – A young girl and her family in Croatia are struck by tragedy at the start of the Yugoslavian civil war in the early 90s. Ten years later the girl decides to return to her homeland and face her past. This book taught me a lot about the war of which I was very unfamiliar. It’s a smart book that shows you it’s possible to bridge the gap between all the lives we have lived to remind us of who we are.

 

Single
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Nonfiction) – A well written and researched book that explores gender roles of women in America and how they have shifted through the decades to now. She incorporates everything from census and statistical data to interviews of every-day women. It’s a thorough and interesting commentary.

 

Liars
We Were Liars (Young Adult) – A group of four friends spend carefree summers together on a family island until one of them has an accident and loses part of her memory. This is a story about friendship, loss, and facing your demons. The bad ratings on Goodreads describe the book as tedious and pretentious, but I found something honest and beautiful in this coming-of-age story. I did listen to the audiobook and loved the narrator, so that likely improved my experience. I cried twice.

 

What are your favorite books so far this year? What are you reading next?