The Grand Tour (review)

The Grand Tour (NetGalley)
Adam O’Fallon Price

Richard Lazar made his fame and fortune writing tales of his time as a soldier in Vietnam. But now Richard is washed up. He hasn’t The Grand Tourpublished in years, he tends bar part-time, he’s living in a trailer outside Phoenix, and his daughter won’t speak to him. Add to that copious alcohol consumption in his off hours, and you’ve got the picture.

But a call from his agent changes all that. (Or most of it anyway.) Americans are weary of U.S. troops in the Middle East and Richard’s “f***-it” attitude resonates with readers. There’s a big advance and a book tour planned.

Now nineteen-year-old Vance Allerby, president of the Washington Area Richard Lazar Auxilliary, wants more than anything to be a writer. He’s also been designated Richard’s driver at the first stop of the tour and it doesn’t start well. At all. Richard stumbles off the plane after a little too much Ambien and vodka, then proceeds to drink more at dinner, barely making it through his first reading at Spillman College.

Vance’s life is in just as much disarray as Richard’s. He’s dropped out of college, tends rather co-dependently to his mentally ill mother, hasn’t heard from his father in years, and he’s spent every waking hour in the past few months working on a manuscript titled Infinite Galaxies of Sorrow. 

But against all odds these two team up for the book tour. The Grand Tour is not a buddy story, though, but more of an I-can’t-stand-you-why-do-I even-care tale of two misfits thrown together by Fate. But they do–care, that is–in their emotionally unavailable ways and so the novel’s real strength is in watching Richard and Vance come to terms with the mess they’ve made of their lives. And how they each help the other tidy up and get on with the business of living and loving.

I didn’t expect to like The Grand Tour as much as I did, and if pushed I had a few quibbles about the plot towards the end. (Rikers Island? Really?!) The novel’s title and epitaph is a line from a George Jones tune by the same name. Listen. Read. It’s an evocative pairing well worth your time.

A week in the life …

polkaMy favorite place to walk in Our Fair City is an urban park set just outside of downtown–I think of it as a little Central Park, although I’ve never been. Riverside Park has winding paved paths curving around and through lagoons, wetlands, and a spectacular tree canopy. I watch the geese, roller bladers, bikers, and disc golfers as I walk, and truth be told I even caught a couple Pokemon here this week–but I wasn’t so fixed on my screen that I couldn’t notice this tiny treasure: a polka dot feather!
Our house is within city limits, but just. The area probably has more undeveloped land than other other part of the city–which is a blessing to those of us who enjoy city living with suburban style, but a curse when it comes to fighting off developers. Right behind our house are nine acres that the neighborhood association has fought to keep free of apartments. This week I took meeting notices and a site plan around to 24 neighbors who border the property and would be most affected by yet another proposed development. Three hours of chatting and hoping to get people bring questions and concerns to a meeting with the developer next week. Community organizing is what makes a good city great.

lalaSo there’s this nugget of sweet baby to snuggle. Her big brother calls her Lala, his version of ‘Alexis’. We don’t know her real well yet, since we just met a couple weeks ago, but I. am. in. love. That big brother keeps me busy on Grammy day. This week we went to the library–he played in the play kitchen while I chose 2 books for him to keep in his special library bag at my house. Not that he stops long enough to read, but a grandma can hope! We got out of the library without a tantrum (or, I should say, just a tiny one!) because the kind librarian came to my rescue, trading Jonas one of the kitchen toys for a sticker. Whew! Then it was back to my house for some time in the wading pool and lunch. Little man is a petite thing who couldn’t get enough macaroni and cheese for lunch–at one point he was scooping with his fork while he shoveled handfuls in between.

csa2I swear we have winter nine months of the year. Not really, but still. Our Great Lakes growing season is short and that makes CSA produce that much more of a treat. “Our” farmers Deane, Linda, and Tory of Chimney Creek Farm are the best local food ambassadors. Each year they host a spring open house where share holders can visit the woodlot pigs they raise (and we’ve eaten!), as well tour the hoop houses and fields. The fall brings a pumpkin share where everyone can pick out their own pumpkin. These farmers have gotten me to try turnips and kohrabi–and last week’s share allowed me to indulge my passion for pickled beets. This week’s bounty was summer at its peak: zucchini, green pepper, garlic, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, melon, plums, apricots. It’s like Christmas when I open my bags and spread out the goodies.

hall2And then there’s this. Yearbooks arrived and I met the driver to sign for delivery, and then stayed to begin to put my room back together again. *sigh* But as much as my heart sinks a bit each time I think about summer’s end, there is something energizing about starting out fresh again with a new batch of kids, clean cupboards, and a clear desk. Until the first week of September!

This is a book blog, right? So you must see what I’m reading: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H. P. Woods. I’m about halfway and it’s an magrudersoriginal story which gets high marks in my book. Kitty finds herself stranded on Coney Island. Her brother dead, mother disappeared, Kitty herself kicked out of her hotel room for reasons unknown. She’s befriended by freaks from the amusement park shows: a giant, a man with no legs, a she-man, and a confidence man. The plague has broken out on the island and the police are rounding up victims and quarantining them. And of course because we humans fear the unusual, the freaks are to blame for the crisis. I love an unconventional storyline and getting lost in a turn-of-the-century freak show gives me a peek into a world I know nothing about.


Did you ever have a family: review

Did you ever have a family
Bill Clegg
Gallery/Scout Press

We know from the outset that June Reid loses daughter Lolly and her fiance, as well as her ex-husband and boyfriend Luke in a horrific accident on the eve of Lolly’s wedding. Any mother, of course, would be devastated and June is no different. But far from losing control in her grief, June becomes an automaton after the tragedy, disengaged even from mourners who try to comfort her. Then, almost before the casseroles have had time to cool after did you ever have a familythe wake, June sets off across country, alone. Where, we don’t know–she has only the clothes on her back and the keys in the ignition. And memories.

The night of the accident had ended badly. June and Luke argue. Lolly confronts June with childhood disappointments. It’s messy, as families who fall apart and reassemble themselves often are. There’s unfinished business between them all–and then because of the tragedy there’s no chance to make it right

I expected a novel that begins with four deaths to be profoundly sad. But it wasn’t.

What follows is a slow unraveling of the years that preceded–each of the victims had suffered some sort of betrayal (either their own or another’s) and endured the consequences: adultery, divorce, estrangement, even prison. Author Bill Clegg gives us their stories and shows us people whose painful experiences became the proving ground for building new–and more satisfying–lives.

There are many back stories to keep track of–even the housekeeper at the motel where June finally settles has a story here–and that might be off putting to some readers. But follow them all, and I think Clegg will reassure you that some sort of resolution can usually be found on the other side of hardship.

Those of us who have become separated from family, those who have lost trust in a loved one or have experienced betrayal (myself included) will find a kind of quiet hope that life opens more doors than it closes–that life might never be perfect, but it can certainly be better.

Bill Clegg’s novel Did You Ever Have a Family will stay with you, it’s that good. Read it when you’ve time to sit with the characters and listen.

How does your garden grow?

gardening with abandonWhen I bought my house twenty years ago, one of the things I loved most was the little perennial garden that ran along the driveway from the front steps to the side. It had been professionally designed and planted and the owners left me the garden schematic beautifully plotted out on parchment-thin paper, shaded with soft penciled colors. That first summer I watched and waited and didn’t make many changes. I had hostas and needle leaf coreopsis and Russian sage and cranesbill.

But after that I got brave. (Brave for me, that is!) I made a trip to the garden market every spring and chose maybe one or two new perennials. Because I have a notorious brown thumb, many didn’t survive. But I managed to coax along some balloon flowers, stargazer lilies, sedum, and black-eyed Susans. My Shasta daisies were stunted by earwigs and every chrysanthemum I planted lasted only a season or two. It was trial and error, with the tendency towards error.

I’m a cautious gardener, you see. I like order–but not necessarily rows–and my garden is pleasant and neat… but rather tame.

the meadow
The meadow

This spring my husband decided to start gardening himself by growing a few annuals from seed. (I always supplement my perennials with potted annuals: marigolds, petunias, geraniums, etc.) Then I asked for a salad bowl–you know, those potted mixes of tiny romaine and leaf lettuces, some baby kale–so I could have salad at the ready. He thought he might try some perennials, just because. The result was three portable greenhouse units crammed with flats and seedlings, moved from window to window, inside to outside. I’ll admit the chaos was a bit alarming for me, someone who loves order and plants methodically.

Now you must also know that B is an all or nothing type of guy. He lives large, takes risks. Doesn’t always plan, but lets life unfold. He’s reaped a lot of highs (and lows) with this approach to life. His garden just sort of happened and there’s nothing small scale about it.

B gardens with abandon and I’ve come to love the beauty in what I once saw as disarray. There’s a lush jungle of pots upogarden2n pots on our deck, and riots of roses and morning glories along the fence. He started a meadow a few years back and this year it has come into its own–a tiny patch of intentional wilderness right
in our yard, complete with a grotto of phlox for my Blessed Virgin.

I still putz in my side garden, swapping out plants occasionally, dead-heading when I remember, and filling in spaces when I get some inspiration. It’s nice.

But B’s garden space is a tangle of color, exploding with annuals and perennials. It’s gorgeous.

And my heart is richer for it.


Happy much? The Invoice (review)

The Invoice
Jonas Karlsson

How do you measure happiness? By the number of friends you have? Or the prestige of your job? Maybe you’re happy if others think highly of you or praise you. Maybe happiness is related to the neighborhood you can afford or the make and model of your car. Smart people are happy, of course. Or are they?

the invoice by jonas karlssonThe new novel The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson explores just what makes a person happy. When we first meet him, the narrator’s life seems slightly shabby. Something of a film buff, he works part-time at a video store. His apartment is small and he is content with a few computer games, an occasional beer, and raspberry ice cream on a hot summer’s day. We know of one friend, Roger, and his parents are dead. He’s been single since the great love of his life Sunita returned to India and an arranged marriage. Definitely an underachiever by my standards–maybe even by most accounts.

But then he receives the invoice, charging him for everything. “Being alive costs,” he’s told. His bill: 5,700, 000 kronor … or approximately $662,000. He’s ignored previous notices in his mail, assuming they were junk mail. He doesn’t watch or read the news, so he’s missed out on months of public service announcements.

Now it’s time to pay up. External Happiness score (or E.H.) is “calculated according to a formula that takes account of age, place of residence, particular experiences, success, proximity to the sea … quality of home and relationships.” It’s all very objective.

When he calls the helpline to correct what he assumes is a mistake, he connects with Maud, and she arranges for an inventory of his flat since he hasn’t the money to pay. Eventually, he gets an appointment with someone who can review his account–he’s hoping to prove he’s had some setbacks and get a discount of sorts. So he lists his parent’s deaths. His breakup with Sunita. His adjusted invoice? 10,480,000 kronor.

And this is where the novel got interesting for me. Here’s how the auditors see his account:

… high E.H. points since the age of twelve, no empathy inhibitors. Parents both deceased. No family of his own, but regular experience quotient from comparable relationships. No setbacks noted since last December. Zero poverty rating. Top score on the emotional quotient. A number of good friendships over the years … Also an uncle–full marks as a role model. THe child’s response regarding the subject is fully emotional. Reliable … strong emotional attachments without any pressure to achieve … whiteness premium, male premium … Nothing but character forming setbacks. All according to the progression framework. There’s no deviation from the development model. He’s almost a textbook example of the Live for today template … almost absurd levels of pleasure … And full access to his feelings.

Eventually, the poor guy’s E.H. invoice tops out at 149,500,000 kronor.

It was that sentence “Nothing but character forming setbacks” that struck me. When relationships are distant or damaged, when finances run amok, or work no longer satisfies, we might choose to embrace our good fortune instead of complain.

Sadly, I think something was lost in translation because for a book centered around such an engaging (and original!) idea, the writing felt flat. Even the main character (who, by the way, is never named in Any Man fashion) seemed colorless, despite his predicament. It’s a farce of a novel with an extraordinary premise, though, and just might be worth your time.

Especially if you find yourself questioning happiness.

A Good Marriage

A picture is worth a thousand words–and I freely admit choosing my books (at least in part) by their covers. Some publishers’ services like midwives by chris bohjalian stone
NetGalley even ask members to give book covers a thumbs up … or down. I’m drawn to book covers that don’t illustrate the book’s plot, but rather paint an impressionistic portrait of the book. So, for instance, the cover of Chris B
Midwives’ shows a distant farm veiled in a blizzard–not a laboring momma or midwife in sight, nor any hint of the tragedy that the blizzard causes. And Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall is all shadowed silhouette of a woman, without a mention that the story is about a the rise and fall of a wealthy businessman. But in the case of both of these titles, the jacket copy was straightforward.

But what I find intriguing? maddening? is a cover that provides a beautiful visual impression, but still leaves the reader clueless after reading the book’s blurb. The Girls by Lori Lansens is a perfect example. The cover is sweet: four feminine feet dangling from a dock into a pond covered in water lillies. The back description tells us the book is about “Rose and Ruby, sisters destined to live inseparably but blessed with distinct sensibilities that enrich and complicate their shared experiences …” and that readers will “find it hard to resist falling under [the girls’] spell.” So maybe a coming-of-age story about sisters growing up in rural America, right?

Except I also hgirlsappened to know when I ordered the book that those girls were conjoined twins because I heard this review on NPR way back in 2006. I wonder still why the publisher wouldn’t at least allude to the girls’ condition on the book–either with cover art or back copy. And while the book isn’t in any way titillating, it is provocative. We come to admire Ruby and Rose’s spunk, but we also get a glimpse of their sex life and their death. It’s not for the faint of heart, and I wonder how many readers picked the book up … only to put it down after a hundred pages.

Cover art and story blurb are an odd couple–in order to entice readers into the book, their marriage must be balanced and nuanced, as well as forthright.

Just like all good marriages.

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Adjusting To Life’s Terms: Miss Jane (review)

Miss Jane
Brad Watson
W.W. Norton & Company

Like so many women in the piney woods of Mississippi, Mrs.Chisolm had lost more babies than she had children. So when she found herself miss jane by brad watsonpregnant again–at thirty-nine, no less–she pretended she was not. Better to think it a false pregnancy than one she would lose yet again.

But Nature is a force to be reckoned with–and that baby, Jane, turned the world of her family and the doctor who tended her on end. Born with a genital abnormality, Jane wouldn’t go to school or play with other children because her condition left her incontinent, nor would she ever marry or have children.

But ignore her you couldn’t, for Jane was a bright and sensitive girl who loved life. She was fearless and independent. And although she would rather not have lived with such a difference, “she accepted it as part of who she was, no matter how unsavory. She determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could [and] would adjust her life to its terms accordingly.”

What writer Brad Watson gives us, then, is a story of Jane’s acceptance of her fate and how she dealt with the discomfort and shame of others: the mother who drifted into stony silence, the father who fell under the spell of his own moonshine, the sister who grudgingly offered her a chance at independence. Jane understood her limitations and accepted life as it was. Her family often could not.

But most touching is Jane’s relationship with two men: her doctor and the young man she loved but turned away because of her difference. Dr. Thompson’s kindness was accompanied by a gentle honesty. It was he who explained to Jane her “problem” simply meant something had gone wrong before she was born. She was “complicated, but essentially normal,” he assured her. And Elijah Key, the boy on the next farm, seemed not to understand Jane’s difference–and she came to love him in a sweet and simple way. Again, it was Dr. Thompson who stepped in, telling Jane that she must turn Elijah away because she could never have normal relations–and to help matters along, Jane’s parents sent her to town to live with her sister Grace.

One would think such a loss would turn Jane bitter. And she struggled, yes. But whatever came Jane’s way, she met with quiet strength and resolve. She buried her parents, ran the farm, and stayed close to Dr. Thompson who remained a true friend.

Writer Brad Watson based Jane’s story on that of his great aunt, and he conveyed enough about Jane’s difference to be accurate, but not indelicate. It was only after I read an article about Watson’s aunt on his website that I understood enough to search out a little more information about her condition.

But it’s really not necessary to know the specifics about her condition because Jane’s story is really about the state of her heart–and in that regard, Jane was without a flaw.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep: review

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep (NetGalley)
Joanna Cannon

Mrs. Creasy has gone missing and the entire estate is abuzz. Especially the residents of the Avenue. Mrs. Creasy was friend (confidant, even) to all–and knew the secrets that lived behind closed doors. She knew the secrets of number 8 and number 12 and even the beleaguered number 11.

Grace and Tilly set out to solve the mystery of her disappearance, starting in church by asking God to find Mrs. Creasy. After the service the vicar tells Grace that “we can stop people from disappearing by helping them find God.”

“Where do you find God?” Gracie asks.
“He’s everywhere. Everywhere.” The vicar waved his arms around to show me. “You just have to look.”
“And if we find God, everyone will be safe?” I said.
“Of course.”

And in true ten-year-old fashion, the girls take him literally and set out to find God. Grace and Tilly go undercover, pretending to work on the trouble with goats and sheep earning Brownie badges as they dust, sweep, and garden their way into neighbors’ lives. On the Avenue they find neighbors who have struggles and secrets aplenty: an alcoholic, a grieving widower, a couple slipping towards dementia, an aging bachelor, the neighborhood pariah. And each of their stories is overshadowed by a time nine years earlier when a baby disappeared and a man’s house was lost in a fire.

The story had some similarities to Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce series: a precocious little girl tries to straighten out adult matters, and in the process points them towards the truth without even realizing it. It’s also a coming of age story where  little Grace idolizes a teenage neighbor and turns her back on her true friend Tilly only to realize that sometimes we’re lucky enough to be given a second chance.

One of the best parts of Goats and Sheep was probably the nods to everyday British what-nots: TV shows, sweets, household products, magazines, etc. I was so taken by the name brands which came so fast and furious that I kept a list: Milk Tray, Fairy Liquid, Quality Street, Babycham, Lime Barrels … oh my! (And I googled every one of them so I could get a peek into Grace’s life.)

Writer Joanna Cannon is also a master of putting words into her characters’ mouths that are rich with irony–most especially when they are discussing an apparition of Jesus that Tilly discovers on a drainpipe. When the reviled Walter Bishop, the novel’s very own Boo Radley, approaches the apparition saying, “I heard about Jesus, and I wondered if I might take a look,” he is turned away when a neighbor tells him, “Jesus isn’t here for just anyone, you know.”

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a delight, plain and simple.

For every action … : Consequence (review)

Eric Fair
Henry Holt

I first heard writer Eric Fair on NPR’s Fresh Air  recounting his time in Iraq as a private consequence: a memoircontractor providing security at Abu Ghraib and later for the NSA in Bagdad. As an intelligence analyst his job was often to interrogate detainees and it’s clear from his experiences the cliches about war true–that war is hell, that there is never a good war.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the conflict in the Middle East, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Fair’s revelations. But Consequence: A Memoir is his story–one man’s perspective on Iraq and how he comes to terms with his actions.

The tours covered in the memoir weren’t his first forays into security. After high school, Fair served with the U.S.Army and studied Arabic in language school. After his tour, he worked as a police officer before a heart condition sidelined him. It was that inability to serve in law enforcement that drove Fair to seek out a private contracting firm so he could continue as a security officer in Iraq.

If we believe his account (and I have no reason to disbelieve him), our wars today are managed by both the military and private contractors. In Fair’s experience, the lines of command were often unclear and it was sometimes easy for military commanders to look the other way and let contractors do the dirty work. As an interrogator, Fair used sleep deprivation and forced standing as tactics–and he sees no line separating the terms enhanced interrogation and torture. And although he didn’t personally witness any of the publicized atrocities at Abu Ghraib, Fair was not the least bit surprised.

Fair lives in the shadow of what he experienced in Iraq. He fights his own personal demons now, accepting the anger, shame, and guilt as the consequence of his actions in Iraq.

It turns out there’s more than one way to be imprisoned.

Fifty-something Shades of Gray

turning grayTrue confession: I’m a woman of a certain age and I don’t color my hair. For a few years back in my 40s, I did highlights, mainly because I felt so pampered at the salon. But I don’t do the all-over douse-it-out bit that so many women do when they see those kinky, silver strands springing up, deciding to color the gray into submission.

But several years ago I decided no more highlights. No low lights. No tempering or toning the gray. I don’t want to be that seventy-year-old blond or redhead or brunette. Because dyed–or should I use the more correct ‘color treated’?– hair just doesn’t compliment the certain softness and fan of wrinkles that come with passing years.

So what you see is what I am. Gray, to be sure. Growing older, of course.

But I am also far more real than I was when I was twenty. (Or thirty or forty, for that matter.) Real as in the Velveteen Rabbit Real. Just like velveteen rabbitthat fictional bunny who grew shabby from being loved, I’ve been worn a little around the edges, too. I’ve got patches from experiencing cancer and infertility and substance abuse and unemployment with my family. A few tatters from a divorce that sometimes turned nasty. I’m threadbare in spots from watching my children leave home and sometimes struggle. My tears have changed me, too, just like they did Velveteen Rabbit.

Those tatters also mean I’m resilient. No matter what, I’ll get back up after I’m knocked down. They mean I’m durable–throw a little life my way and I’ll still be there for you. Those worn edges mean I’m in it for the long haul. And while I might also have lost a bit of my shape, it doesn’t matter to the people who love me because “when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.” I’m comfortable in my own skin because it’s, well, comfy! Hug me and I’m Velveteen Rabbit soft.

Now that’s not to say that women who color their gray aren’t. I’m just baffled as to why anyone would want to cover up the traces that mark them as sharp and experienced, that highlight their quick-wit and insight.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t do au naturel, either. You’ll find no patchouli in my makeup drawer (it’s Dior, right now thank-you-very-much) and I love the close shave of a new razor. I’ve got a drawer full of jars and palettes, brushes and compacts, tonics and toners.

Embracing my gray doesn’t mean I don’t care, but rather that every day–week–year that’s passed has been precious. And I don’t want to lose sight of that.

So when I look in the mirror and see those silver streaks, I smile … because I have loved long and I becoming more Real every day.