Family drama: two end-of-summer reviews

Are You Sleeping? (NetGalley)
Kathleen Barber
Simon & Schuster

are you sleepingKathleen Barber’s new novel Are You Sleeping is a little bit mystery, a little bit thriller, and a lotta bit pop culture–the story is great vacation reading. Or, since the fall and winter are fast approaching, it would also make a good blizzard read! (Does anyone else remember books by winter storms?!)

Twins Josie and Lanie aren’t speaking. After their father’s murder when they were young teens both Lanie and their mother fell to pieces. Lanie lived life in the fast lane–sex, drugs, and outrageous behavior. Their mother Erin turned in on herself, curled up in bed, and lived in a medicated haze … until, that is, she joined a cult, the Life Force Collective. The girls’ Aunt Amelia steps in for her sister and provides a warm and loving home for the girls, but the trauma plays out in a series of betrayals that separates them. Josie goes so far as to legally change her name, move to New York, and re-invent her backstory to include being an orpahned only child

Lanie was the only witness to the murder and her testimony sent their teenage neighbor Warren Cave to prison for the crime he committed. Or did he?

Enter Poppy Parnell and her podcast Reconsidered. Cast in the same mold as Serial and Sh*t Town, Poppy opens the thirteen-year-old case and interviews the accused, his mother, police officers, the DA–exactly the voices we’d expect to hear from on a podcast like this. The only players who aren’t interviewed are the girls and Erin, but Poppy shadows them, even going so far as to show up at the funeral home when their mother dies.

As the podcast plays out (Twitter comments and all!) Josie begins to doubt everything she had believed about her family, their life together, and the horror of the murder. A great exposé into what drives us to remember–and why forgetting might be most difficult thing of all.

Goodbye, Vitamin (NetGalley)
Rachel Khong
Henry Holt

This is a hard one.

It’s Christmas, and Ruth Young, newly single, is home for the holidays. Fa-la-lalala and all that is merry and bright. Except when it isn’t. Ruth’s goodbye, vitamindad, Howard, is sliding into dementia. He’s been let go by the university where he taught for decades, and her mother, Annie, can’t cope by herself any longer. Just stay for awhile “to keep an extra eye on things” meaning “Just the year … think about it.”

And because Ruth is at loose ends and because she’s in an unsatisfying job, she stays. Trades San Francisco for Los Angeles. Things aren’t going well. Howard stays in his home office for hours (days?) at a time. He isn’t eating. Occasionally, he will surface and show Ruth the notebook he’s kept since her birth. He recorded simple things, their conversations, her questions–“Today you pronounced “worse” to rhyme with “horse”‘; Today you put sand in the microwave. You said you were making glass; Today you called your grandmother “small mom”–and the entries provide a tender backdrop to what we learn about Ruth’s father. That he has been a philanderer his entire marriage. That he is a heavy drinker. Ruth tends to overlook his flaws. Annie and Ruth’s brother Linus can’t.

But although dementia and dysfunction hardly sound like they’d add up to a touching story, Goodbye, Vitamin is a poignant tale of redemption. A small group of Howard’s former students volunteer to play-act a study group for him (Ruth is in on the deception, too), and we see Howard come alive again when he’s teaching. They hold class in empty rooms across campus, at a coffee shop, at home with birthday cake on Howard’s birthday, at Disneyland (for a lecture on the entertainment industry), on horseback (the lecture was about the Pony Express).

Harold gets worse and we see the can-be-amusing slips–“he called a mechanical pencil a needle” and when they passed “some evergreens called the needles pens“–and the not-so-amusing when he is found by the police sitting on a neighbor’s porch steps a few streets over, dressed only in boxers. Linus moves back home to help Ruth.

And, somehow, despite all the hurt, even with Howard’s cheating and drinking, the family comes together. Changed, yes. But they laugh together, cook dinner together, arrange nightlights all over the house so Howard doesn’t become disoriented. look at old family photographs. Now the tables are turned and it’s Ruth’s turn to hold onto the moments before they’re gone. “Today we ate grapes from a mug and met a white dog; Today we went for a run together … you lapped me handily, pumping your fist as you did; Today we went to the pumpkin patch; Today I saw you and Mom in the living room, reading, sitting very close.” 

Because there’s more than one way to be a family.

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