Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan

Title:  Of Bees and Mist

Author:  Erick Setiawan

Paperback:  405 (Advaced Reader’s Edition)

Published:  August 2009

ISBN:  9781615233502

Acquired:  Received from Barnes & Noble’s First Look online book club

Challenges:  ARC Reading Challenge 2010, New Author Challenge 2010

“If you have something to say, then say it,” said Meridia.  “I know you’ve been talking to Mama behind my back.”

A smile slow and calculating parted the girl’s lips.  The liveliness in her eyes extended to her mouth, which now took on a delight almost to fiendish for her thirteen years.

“You’re wearing… the necklace Mama gave you.  You wear it three, four times a week.”… Malin’s laugh leapt up with contempt.  “You’re just like the rest of them.  So easily fooled.  When I first met you, I thought you had it in you to stick it to her….  Can’t you see how cheap that necklace is?  I wouldn’t be surprised if she fished it out of  a garbage bin.  And yet you wear it like it’s the most precious thing you own.”

“I wear it because I like it.  Mama was generous enough to give it to me.”

“Have you listened to yourself lately?  Every other sentence you say is ‘ Mama this and Mama that.’  It makes me sick to hear you go on!  Well, she’s not your mother and she never will be.  Why do you bend to her every wish?  Why does everyone?  If you only knew the things she says behind your back.”

 -Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan, pages 128-129

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is descibed on the back of the book as an adult fable, and I had to Google “fable” to understand how they could call it this, as my previous understanding of the term was “a short story told for the purpose to entertain an audience while teaching them a life lesson.”  You know, “Moral of the story is…”  But Of Bees and Mist is not a short story, and I’m not exactly sure if it’s got a moral. 

According to Google, there are two specific definitions of “fable” that can apply to this book:

A fable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, that features animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized.

A story about mythical or supernatural beings or events.

In Of Bees and Mist, Setiawan tells the story of two families of strong matriarchs who are brought together by the marriage of Daniel and Meridia.  Eva, Daniel’s mother, is a larger-than-life personality with poise and charm and sweeps everyone up into the palm of her hand by her charisma.  Once in her grasp, however, she expects them to do her bidding and never argue or suffer the consequences.  She takes particular aim at her own husband, Elias, as well as her youngest daughter, Permony, of whom she has always seen as competition for her husband’s affection.  She continually nags, berates and cajoles them for differing reasons and effects.  With Elias, she peppers him with swarming bees at all hours, particularly at night when he’s trying to rest (she naps during the day so she can keep at him) until he breaks from exhaustion and flies off the handle.  As to Permony, Eva treats her as the whipping girl and gets out her frustration and irritation on the young girl.  When Meridia comes along and takes up Permony’s cause, expresses her own opinion and shows herself to be both beautiful and intelligent, Eva can’t stand it.  She levels her sights to destroy her new daughter-in-law.

The second mother in the equation is Ravenna, who has gained a reputation in their small town as not being quite right in the head.  A great deal of the time, Ravenna lives in her own world, mumbling her own private language to herself while constantly cooking for no one in particular.  She lives her life behind a veil of forgetfulness, hiding from a past no one will talk about.  However, occasionally she finds her way to the surface, and is a force to be reckoned with.  Her essence and spirit has lasting power and Meridia is able to sustain herself in between Ravenna’s moments of sanity.  Whereas Eva has a vile and evil presence that drives people to bitterness and contention, Ravenna has a soothing and calming effect, bringing peace with her and driving out Eva’s bees.  It is between these two women that the battle of Good versus Evil seems to play out.

Along with the bees that pour from Eva’s lips to attack those at whom she directs them, there are other supernatural elements.  There are the three different mists that are characters in their own right in the book.  The white mist that encases the house that Meridia grew up in which keeps it the temperature and hearts within the home cold.  The yellow mist that comes in the evenings to take Gabriel, Meridia’s father, away to his mistress’s house and the blue mist that brings him back in the mornings.  There is a ghost that inhabits the mirrors, as well as fireflies that visit, protect and guide Meridia, and roses and marigolds that seem to war for dominance over Eva’s lawn.  AND, there is Hannah, Meridia’s best friend from childhood, who returns for visits with her as an adult when times are hard for her.  No one ever sees Hannah, but I don’t think she’s Meridia’s imaginary friend.

The worst evil Eva commits is to make a deal with a man whom she knows is wicked to marry her daughter in order to profit monetarily from the match.  Worse yet, when her daughter confesses to discovering the man to be part beast (a pig-man), and to raping young girls in their basement, Eva sends her back to him.  Telling her daughter she doesn’t want a scandal surrounding her name.  For Eva, saving face and her pride are her most precious treasures.

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Honestly, Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is a complex story with many facets.  One of the things I found most amazing was that Setiawan hung so many guns on every room of a mansion in this book, and fired them all.  There are no strings left untied, everything was used.  Another thing I was impressed by reading Of Bees and Mist is the difference in storytelling between Western and Eastern cultural style.  This book really showed off the Oriental thought process of fluidity, connectivity and moments of experience, whereas in the Occidental custom, storytelling and philosophy is linear and cause-and-effect.  Because of this, Of Bees and Mist doesn’t follow the “this-then that-then that happened” but was more like friezes in the lives of the characters within, with the balance of their lives being weighed out in the end.

I may re-read this book later… I haven’t decided.  There were just so many aspects of the story that I think I’d could still get more out of it.  Overall, Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan is a fantastic story that sweeps the reader along.  I was surprised how much time and pages went by as I read.  Though I’m not exactly sure why I’m not giving this a 5 out of 5, it’s still a great book, and so I’m giving it 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Home Repair by Liz Rosenberg

home-repairTitle:  Home Repair

Author:  Liz Rosenberg

Paperback:  352 pages

ISBN:  9780061734564

Challenges:  ARC Challenge

But it was more than facing the clutter and the mess, this grip of cold gloom that surrounded her.  She had never been prone to depression, not even after Ivan died, but what she suffered now felt like a disease of the soul.  She wandered aimlessly around the house.  The flowers in their clay pots out on the front porch were long dead and withered.  A few brown leaves stuck out from the stems.  She seemed to be staring at the demise of everything.  Everything she’d already lost, all the losses still to come.  It all headed toward grief in the end.  Humans were soap bubbles, clinging to any solid surface.  They rested briefly, then were gone.  Her mother would be gone soon, and not long after, it would be herself, and one day even her own children…

A chill stabbed her heart.  Why on earth bother?  Why clean, take out the trash, make the beds.  Why not let it all alone to rot?

- Home Repair by Liz Rosenberg, pages 183-184 (ARE)

I’d first like to thank Jennifer, aka Book Club Girl, for the opportunity to read Home Repair and participate in a discussion with Liz Rosenberg, the book’s author.  You can listen to her July 8th broadcast on Blog Talk Radio with the author by clicking here.  It was my first time participating in a live discussion with an author, and was an interesting experience.  It would definitely be more interesting to have the author’s voice at a book club discussion more often.

One of the things that sticks out most for me with Home Repair is that it truly has a feeling of authenticity.  Often in books, when the tragic or fantastic occurs, it feels contrived or manufactured, a vehicle for the author to get the characters from one point to another, or to teach a lesson.  However, with this book, the events feel natural.  When Eve and her seventeen-year-old son, Marcus, get into a fight about him going for a ride in his friend’s new sports car, it had a very familiar feeling to me, a mother of two teens of my own.  The events that followed the argument also felt familiar and made me think back to something that had happened within my own family.  Another aspect of Home Repair that I kept thinking of while reading it was that the characters were very real to me.  At times I could see my own mother in Charlotte, Eve’s mom, with Eve playing my part, at other times Mrs. Dunrea could’ve been me.  Also, Rosenberg has set Home Repair in her home town of Bignhamton, New York, adding even more realism to the book.

Home Repair by Liz Rosenberg begins on a bright, sunny and unseasonably mild day as Eve holds a garage sale to clear out some of the clutter in her family of four’s life.  As the day progresses, she becomes aware that her husband, Chuck, has taken the opportunity to clear out for good.  Eve is left with the task of explaining to her two children, Marcus and Noni, that he’s left them, and to somehow manage to dig down within herself and soldier on.  The book takes us on a year journey as Eve rediscovers who she is, develops friendships and connections with new and different people, and deepens her relationships with those she already knows.  When her mother moves up from Tennessee to “help,” Eve is faced with her mother’s own eventual mortality and humanness, as she struggles in the in-between land of mother caring for her own children while being a child caring for her mother.  Home Repair is the story of healing, family and friendship that will stay with you and gives hope that “This too shall pass.”

“Why does anyone get married?  Why do middle-aged men leave their wives, or women abandon their families and run off to Tahiti?  Why does anyone bother to become friends with anyone, or adopt a child, or own a pet, for that matter?  We’re all going to die sooner or later, if that’s what you’re thinking,”  Charlotte said.  “That’s life.  Nothing we do can change that.  We’re all going to someday say good-bye.  We’re all going to have to cry, little girl,” she said, putting one hand out to touch Eve’s hair.  The touch did not quite happen, but hovered, and then settled back down, like a butterfly, still quivering.  “We might as well be happy while we can.”

-Home Repair by Liz Rosenberg, page 324 (ARE)

Home Repair by Liz Rosenberg is a comfort, homey read that reminds us that we’re not alone and gives us hope.  It tells us that we’re stronger than we think and love is the best home repair.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Title:  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

Author:  Kim Edwards

Paperback:  401 pages

Date Published:  2006

Publisher:  Penguin Books

ISBN:  0143037145

The head crowned.  In three more pushes it emerged, and then the body slid into his waiting hands and the baby cried out, its blue skin pinking up.

It was a boy, red-faced and dark-haired, his eyes alert, suspicious of the lights and the cold bright slap of air.  The doctor tied the umbilical cord and cut it.  My son, he allowed himself to think.  My son.

“Where is the baby?” his wife asked, opening her eyes and pushing hair away from her flushed face.  “Is everything all right?”

“It’s a boy,” the doctor said, smiling down at her.  “We have a son.  You’ll see him as soon as he’s clean.  He’s absolutely perfect.”

His wife’s face, soft with relief and exhaustion, suddenly tightened with another contraction… he understood what was happening… “Nurse?” the doctor said, “I need you here.  Right now.”

…”Twins?” the nurse asked.

…This baby was smaller and came easily… “It’s a girl,” he said, and cradled her like a football… The blue eyes were cloudy, the hair jet black, but he barely noticed all of this.  What he was looking at were the unmistakable features, the eyes turned up as if with laughter, the epcantha fold across the lids, the flattened nose… A mongoloid.

-The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, pages 15-16

When Norah Henry goes into labor during a blizzard (I know, very Lifetime Movie, right?), Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver their children himself.  There is only one other person present at the delivery, the office nurse, Caroline Gill.  When David realizes that his newborn daughter has Down’s Syndrome, he passes her to Caroline with the directions to a “home for the feeble-minded,” and the name of the person to talk to there.  His intentions are to tell his wife, who is passed out from the anaesthetic gas, about their daughter’s condition when she comes to, however, when the moment arrives, he lies to her and tells her the girl is dead and her body sent to be buried in the family cemetery on his partner’s farm.  In her grief, Norah plans and announces a memorial for the lost child, “Phoebe,” and informs David of all this after it’s been made public, sticking him fast to the story he told her of the baby’s death.

Caroline, after seeing the deplorable conditions of the place David has sent his daughter to be dumped off and after being informed that the person to whom she was to speak no longer works there, decides to keep Phoebe.  Caroline, now in her early 30s, has spent her whole life waiting for her life to begin, waiting to be someone and to make a difference, she takes Phoebe and moves to Pittsburgh to raise her as her own.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards is the unfolding of the outcome of David’s decision.  It shows how this one secret, and really, much more that David has kept all his life, erects a wall between him and his family.  In his attempt to spare his wife and son the pain of having a daughter and sister who’s condition he believes will be a burden on them their entire life, he has only substituted one pain for another.  By the time he realizes his lie has caused more heartache than the truth ever could, his family has become individuals, islands unto themselves, lonely and feeling like they could never be good enough for the rest.

Because this book does a great job at recreating the sentiments of the time period toward special needs children, there are times when what’s being said is offensive.  My two older girls have special needs, and when the nurse in the Pittsburgh hospital asks Caroline if she really wants her to save Phoebe’s life, it rankled me as much as it did Caroline.  The book doesn’t crank out a happily ever after scenario, nor does it become an “Oh my God, yet another tragedy” soap opera, instead it presents a plausible, heart-felt outcome.

Things to keep in mind if you plan to read this book:  It is a real look at what life is like raising a child with special needs, and raising that child into adulthood.  It is a lifetime of events, and therefore can seem long, but it doesn’t drag.  Also, it does have heavy and sad moments, the character’s don’t do “the right thing” and there are no heroes… except maybe Paul and Phoebe, and even then maybe just Phoebe.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards can help the reader have more compassion for caretakers of special needs children, as well as having a moral that the truth is always the better way to go, that the best of intentions is often the surest and straightest path to Hell.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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P.S.  Do NOT watch the Lifetime movie of this.  It is officially the WORST book to movie EVER! EVER EVER EVER EVER EVERI give that POS movie NEGATIVE infinity out of 5 stars.  It made the characters appear flat and shallow, it changed parts of the story that didn’t need changed and it was just plain crap.  Anyone who says they didn’t like the book because the characters were shallow and selfish, I have to wonder if they really read the book or watched the movie.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Title:  Empire Falls

Author:  Richard Russo

Paperback:  483 pages

Date Published:  2001

PublisherVitage Books (a div of Random House)

ISBN:  9780375726408

MiscellaneousEmpire Falls won the 2002 Pulitizer Prize for Fiction

 

“Has it ever occurred to you that life is a river, dear boy?”  Mrs. Whiting said when Miles sat down opposite her in the gazebo.  In asking this question the old woman managed to convey, as with all such queries, that she was not anticipating a response that would enlighten her.  Whereas some people’s attitude suggested that perhaps they knew something you didn’t, Mrs. Whiting’s implied that she knew  everything  you didn’t.  She alone had been paying attention, so it was her duty to bring you at least partially up to speed.

-Empire Falls by Richard Russo, page 161

Empire Falls by Richard Russois the multi-faceted and complex tale of the Central Maine town of Empire Falls. Woven together like a rich tapestry, it tells of the cross-generational intersections of the lives of its denizens, with the life of Miles Roby the central focus.

Miles has spent most of his life going with the flow. A devout Catholic, he’s predisposed to motivation-by-guilt and a nagging sensation that everything bad that’s ever happened can somehow, if one looked hard enough, back to him and is his fault. His desire to always do the right thing gives him the unintended air of moral superiority that can be repellent, and the fact that he attended 3 1/2 years of college before returning to Empire Falls when his mother was on her death bed gives him an added perception of intellectual superiority. All of this is not a truth about Miles, only what others sometime perceive about him.

Opposite Miles are Jimmy Minty and Mrs. Whiting. Jimmy Minty, Mr. Empire Falls as he referred to himself, is a police officer and possibly the next Chief of Police. Whereas Miles can seem morally and intellectually superior to the town even though it’s everything he is NOT, Minty is the “everyman”. People may not like him, but at least he’s one of them and knows it. What the town does NOT know is that this “everyman” has keys to each and every lock in Dexter County, a houseful of stolen electronics and no tangible income to explain his ownership of a shiny, new, red Camaro.

Minty’s off-the-book work as Mrs. Whiting’s muscle is, of course, how he affords the car. Think of a Bedford Falls in which George Baily just went along, obligingly, with what Old Man Potter said, and you’d have Empire Falls. Mrs. Whiting is Russo’s answer to Mr. Potter. Incapable of feeling love herself, she has an incredible knack of uncovering that affliction in others and does her best to eradicate it. “Power and Control” are the words by which she lives, and tells Miles that people often confuse will with power, and that the “power” they perceive the lucky few as having is simply that they know what they want in life and go after it.

 

“You appear to have been visited by some sort of revelation, dear boy,” Mrs. Whiting observed. “Here’s my suggestion, though. Why not think things over? Passionate decisions are seldom very sound.”

“When did you ever feel passion?”

“Well, it’s true I’m seldom swept away like those with more romantic temperaments,” she conceded. “But we are what we are, and what can’t be cured must be endured.”

“What can’t be cured mus be avenged,” Miles said. “Isn’t that what you mean?”

She smiled appreciatively. “Payback is how we endure, dear boy…”

-Empire Falls by Richard Russo, pages 434-435

 

Another of Miles nemeses, Timmy the Cat, is one of my favorite characters in this book.  Timmy, found and adopted by Mrs. Whiting’s daughter Cindy, had, as a small kitten, been placed in a sack with her litter-mates and tossed into the Knox, the river that runs through Empire Falls.  She was the lone survivor and never right in the head ever after.  Described by Miles in such loving terms as “psychotic” or “homicidal”, Timmy is whispered by the townspeople (usually in the bar and after a few drinks) to be Mrs. Whiting’s familiar.  Appearing as if from thin air whenever Mrs. Whiting’s name is spoken, as if the uttering of her mistress’s name was the spell to summon the demon cat.  In a way, Timmy is representative of Mrs. Whiting’s nature and how she relates to people, as if she were a cat and they the wounded prey she toyed with until they bored her and she finally ended their lives.

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It took me a while to finish Empire Falls, and a bit longer than that to write this review.  It is a dense and complex novel, with several sub-plots and sub-stories.  There’s Tick, Miles’s daughter, and her steady march to adulthood.  Will she become passive and resigned to whatever the fate’s bring like her dad?  David Roby, Miles (maybe half) brother, and his life of sobriety after an accident caused by his own drunk driving, rendered his left hand useless.  And, of course, there’s the incorrigible Max Roby, Miles father, who’s life philosophy can be condensed into two words, “So What!”  Max is always on the look out for the hand out and badgers his son  for money, promising him if he’d just give him $500 then he’d take off for the Florida Keys, and he’d be out of Miles’s hair for a whole New England winter.  Tempting, Miles thinks, before realizing the old man would just call for more money once he got there.

After considering and weighing Empire Falls by Richard Russo, I came to the understanding that the best way to describe it is that it’s a “grown up book”.  Not necessarily for language, though it does have plenty of that, nor for sexual content, ditto, or for violence, though there is animal cruelty and a shooting in it, but rather that it’s the kind of book that rings several emotional and experiential bells that one needs to have lived a little to even begin to catch the nuances and appreciate the full sensations found in the book.

For its intimate and tangible moving portrayal of life in a small town, I give Empire Falls by Richard Russo  4 1/2 out of 5 stars.  I cannot, for the life of me, explain why I’m holding that last 1/2 back… perhaps because it’s not a WOW book, but rather, like water slowly flowing along, eroding the rocks and banks slowly and imperceptively over time, until, all at once and a long way down river, it’ll suddenly hit me.

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I’ve been watching the HBO mini-series Empire Falls, based on this book.  It’s a really good show, and does a good job of staying close to the book, in spirit if not literally.  The screenplay was also written by Richard Russo.  As for the casting, I wasn’t entirely stoked about Ed Harris as Miles, but I did like Paul Newman’s Max Roby, and thought William Fichtner as Jimmy Minty was SPOT ON. :-)

and a twofer, this one is a brief “making of” but gives a great feel for the book itself.

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

Title: Exit Ghost
Author: Philip Roth
Hardcover: 292 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Publish Date:2007
ISBN: 9780618975477

What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city? The most obvious thing – the cell phones. We had no reception as yet up on my mountain, and down in Athena, where they do have it, I’d rarely see people striding the streets talking uninhibitedly into their phones. I remembered a New York when the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy. What had happened in these ten years fo there suddenly to be so much to say – so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the driver were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous.

-Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, pages 63-64

Nathan Zuckerman is man in the twilight years of his life. As an author, words and ideas have been his medium to work and creation, yet, now age seventy-one, senility and his growing “word salad” difficulty has begun is slowly robbing him of his ability to write. Once virile and in control of his destiny, a prostectomy has rendered him impotent and incontinent. And, after ten years of New England solitude, the hope of regaining some bladder control from a medical procedure has brought him back to the cosmopolis of his exodus, New York City, where he likens himself to Rip Van Winkle, returning from his twenty-year nap and finding the entire world changed.

In his week-long stay, he makes connections with three people who that threaten to irreversibly alter his chosen isolation and reality. With the first, he makes a rash decision to answer an add to swap homes and meets the young and seductive, Jamie Logan, who inspires a fantasy affair in Zuckerman’s mind and reawakens his all-but-lost desire for female company. His second, the serendipitous running into of Amy Bellette, the mistress of his literary icon, Manny Lonoff, reminds him of both his youthful past and his ever-creeping mortality. The third connection he makes is with Richard Kliman, an abrasive, tenacious wanna-be literateur, who believes he has discovered Lonoff’s “great secret” and wants to write his biography, exposing the author’s shameful “crime” in the titillating tell-all fashion of the modern biography, a genre of current writing that is more Weekly World News than World News.

Meeting these three people force Zuckerman to face and accept the realities that his isolation has allowed him to ignore: He is getting old, each day bringing him closer to his own life’s end, and after his death he will no longer have control of that life he lived, as some young writer wanting to make a name for himself may decide to write the expose of Nathan Zuckerman. In the end, he asks himself this questions: Once I am dead, who can protect the story of my life? How will I have failed to be the model human? What will be my great, unseemly secret?

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Exit Ghost  is my first experience reading Philip Roth, but I don’t plan on making it my last. Slow going at first, I wasn’t sure I would really be able to get into it. How can a mid-thirties, single mom understand and relate to a septuagenarian man? How can I, a moderate to conservative Republican from the mid-west, relate to a liberal Democrat New Englander? I’m a product of the Eighties and Nineties, he is a product of the fifties and sixties. I’m a W.A.S.P. and he a Jew. I am in the Summer of my life when all my body parts are where the good Lord put them, and work within normal parameters. He is entering the Winter of his, incontinent, showing the beginning of dementia, with a mutinous body. I’m aware death will someday happen, though not many I know have experienced it. Zuckerman is facing it’s certainty, many of his friends and contemporaries having already passed through that gate.

However, for all this lack of commonality, Roth manages the miraculous; for a time, a young woman in her prime became an aging man in his decline.

Winner of several prestigious awards, Philip Roth is a skilled, intelligent yet readable, wordsmith. He references Joseph Conrad (an author I have not yet read, but I do have Heart of Darknesson Mt. TBR) often in Exit Ghost, and I found his writing style to be reminiscent of Faulkner (not surprisingly, he has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times).

For it’s ability to transport the reader to a life completely foreign and unimaginable, as well as for it’s well-written and memorable passages that are sure to be included in quotable literature books, I give Exit Ghost by Philip Roth  five out of five stars.

hated it!didn't like itit was okayliked itLoved it!

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Title: Matrimony
Author: Joshua Henkin
Paperback: 291 pages
Publisher: Vintage (division of Random House, Inc.)
Publish Date: August 2008
ISBN: 9780307277169

“So how’s your book going?”

“Glacially,” Julian said. “It’s like that joke about Joyce Carol Oates. Someone calls her up and her secretary says, ‘I’m sorry, Miss Oates can’t come to the phone right now, she’s busy writing a book,” and the person says, ‘That’s okay, I’ll hold.’ Only with me it’s the opposite. Rip Van Winkle wakes up twenty years later and I’m still writing my novel… I’ve been at it almost ten years,” he said. “I’ve got two hundred and fifty pages, though I’ve probably thrown out twenty for every one I’ve kept. I’m laying waste to whole forests.”

“What’s the book about?”

Julian hesitated. Even to Mia, he hadn’t confided much; he didn’t want to jinx himself. Growing up, he’d had a special cup he drank from and a lucky number, eight. When he watched the Metsat Shea Stadium in 1973, five years old, in the corporate box seats with his father, he always wore his baseball glove… because he believed it made the Mets play better… Writers, Julian believed, came in all types, but one way or another they were control freaks, and superstition was nothing if not an attempt to exert control. Besides, he thought a good novel resisted summary; it had to speak for itself. Still, he felt he owed Carter an answer, for Carter was his friend and he’d written fiction, too.

-Matrimony by Joshua Henkin, page 142

First of all, I want to say that when I first received an email from Josh to review and host a giveaway for Matrimony, I was preparing for a real life visit from my Second Life boyfriend. I was excited and in love, and all that other ooey-gooey stuff brought on by the overproduction of the brain chemicals dopamine and oxytocin. I read the summary and it sounded sweet and lovely and wonderful. However, by the time the book arrived, things between him and I had started going south (reality really ruins fantasy), and I didn’t want to read about happy people falling in love and living happy lives with each other and living happily ever after. So, I drug my feet so hard that I’m surprised I don’t have grooves in my floors.

Then Josh sent another email excusing me from the review having not read the book, and asking me if I still wanted host the book giveaway. I felt guilty for not following through on my side of it, deciding to grin and bear the book , and facetiously set the giveaway for the first day of Lent, stating the two sacraments, marriage and penance, went well together.

So I sat down Sunday morning and started reading Matrimony. Immediately I realized this book was, by far, NOT what I had expected. Josh’s characters are shocking and quirky, vibrant and memorable, drawing me in and guaranteeing I would read the book through to the final punctuation mark.

Julian’s roommate is convinced the other guys on their dorm floor pee in the communal shower and resolves to wear flip-flops when bathing. His writing professor, embittered by the treatment of his novel in a failed attempt to turn it into a movie, refuses to admit anyone who writes with the intention to write books for the film industry. What’s more, Professor Chesterfield writes commandments on the blackboard, 117 by year’s end, like “THOU SHALT NOT USE THE WORD ‘KERPLUNK’ IN YOUR SHORT STORIES,” and “ THOU SHALT NEVER USE PASS-THE-SALT DIALOGUE.

It is in this writing class Julian meets Carter Heinz, and the two become best friends. During their freshman year, Carter meets and falls in love with Pilar, as does Julian with Mia when they meet in the dorm’s laundry room. Thus begins Matrimony, as Henkin takes the reader on a 15 year journey in the life of Julian Wainright, born to wealth but refusing the comforts and connections the privilege would bring, his struggles to fulfill his dream to publish his novel, and the joys and heartaches life brings.

Unlike Sinclair’s Jungle, whose characters make small gains in one chapter, only to have catastrophic losses in the next, until you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all, the ups and downs the lives of the characters in Matrimony are believable and to whom the reader can fully relate. When Mia feels lost and alone as she watches her mother waste away from breast cancer, I wanted to hug her and comfort her and tell I knew what she was going through because my father died from cancer. I was reassured by Julian’s difficulties as a writer, knowing I’m not alone in my own feelings in my own sluggish progress with my novel. And when trouble arises between the couple after Julian learns about an infidelity nine years before, I completely understood his sense of betrayal and loss.

But Henkin hasn’t just written a compelling and involving tale of characters so real that you expect to find them at the grocery store or mall, Matrimony offers lessons in writing that I’ve taken to heart and inspires the reader to action. After reading how Mia copes with their separation, foregoing the comfort of their bed, sleeping instead on the futon from their college days and hoping to catch Julian‘s scent in it, I realized I was holding on to a person, knowing our relationship has ended.

After his visit, I had taken the bed sheet he’d slept on, folded it up and put it away, refusing to wash it because HE was in it; his skin cells, hair and scent were woven into the threads themselves. However, after reading Mia’s feelings, thoughts and actions, I grabbed the sheet and threw it in the washer, letting go of the hurt and disappointment and sense of loss of what could have been. I deleted his phone numbers from my phone and his address from my computer. Then I took a long look at the months I spent in Second Life, and asked myself what did I haveto show for it. The answer I arrived at was this: For the five months I spent escaping to a virtual (fantasy is a better term) world, I had neglected my responsibilities to my family, the housekeeping, to my reading and blogging, to paying bills, became forgetful of appointments and activities, and have had one of the worst cases of winter depression (I have Seasonal Affected Disorder) that I have had in a long time. I have very little good to show for it. Once I realized this, I removed everything related to Second Life from my computer and I’m debating canceling my account (I have decided to wait a month before doing something that drastic, though, as I’vealready paid the rent for my apartment). Though it was painful at first, I feel a profound sense of relief and freedom at having made a decision and taken action, taking control of the situation instead of being a passive victim of life.

I have told all of that to say this: The difference between a good read and a great book is whether or not the reader is changed and compelled to act on that change. A good read is enjoyable and fun, but is forgotten in a year or two; it is the chips and Twinkies of the literary world. Contrastingly, a great book may be an uncomfortable labor to take in, but the reader cannot walk away the same person he or she was before opening the cover and peeking within; it is the manna that sustained the Israelites for forty years of desert wandering, and is preserved for future generations’ understanding and inspiration. Great books become classics, and Matrimony, if there is any wisdom in the reading world, will be counted among them.

For its truth, wisdom, tangible characters, its meaningful and timely content, and its power to inspire and to illicit change, I give Matrimony by Joshua Henkin 5 out of 5 stars, two thumbs and toes up, and a perfect ten (even the German judge agrees). It ranks among the few books I’ve read that becomes a permanent resident of my library. I know I will reread this book, which is very rare for me. I just cannot praise Matrimony enough.

Thank you, Josh, for writing this book and for inviting me to experience and share it. *sniff… tear* :)

 

Don’t forget to sign up to WIN a personalized, autograph copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin!  Enter here to win! :-)

House & Home by Kathleen McCleary

Title: House & Home
Author: Kathleen McCleary
Harcover: 259 pages
Publisher: Hyperion
Publish Date: July 1, 2008
ISBN: 9781401340735

The house was yellow, a clapboard Cape Cod with a white picket fence and a big bay window on one side, and Ellen loved it with all her heart. She loved the way the wind from the Gorge stirred the trees to constant motion outside the windows, the cozy arc of the dormers in the girls’ bedroom, the cherry red mantel with the cleanly carved dentil molding over the fireplace in the living room. She had conceived children in that house, suffered a miscarriage in that house, brought her babies home there, argued with her husband there, made love, rejoiced, despaired, sipped tea, and gossiped and sobbed and counseled and blessed her friends there, walked the halls with sic children there, and scrubbed the worn brick of the kitchen floor there at least a thousand times on her hands and knees. And it was because of all this history with the house, all the parts of her life unfolding there day after day for so many years, that Ellen decided to burn it down.

-House & Home by Kathleen McCleary, first paragraph

I’m very excited to say that House & Home by Kathleen McCleary is the first book I’ve read as part of a virtual book tour. As I am the next to last stop, I don’t know that I will have anything new to say about the book, but I will give it a go anyway.

House & Home is McCleary’s first novel. She is a journalist with articles appearing in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, More, and Health, and on HGTV.com. Overall, it’s a fabulous first book with real, palpable emotions and characters that you can recognize in your own life. My only complaint about the book is that some of the dialogue seemed a bit stinted and forced, and I often found myself wondering if a person would really say something like that.

House & Home is the story of Ellen Flanagan, mother of two daughters and recently separated from her free-spirited, inventor husband. Ellen, always stable, responsible and safe, still loves her more reckless, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants husband Sam, but can no longer stand to be the grown-up in the relationship. The house she loves and has called home for eleven years is mortgaged to the hilt on Sam’s latest invention. After spending their savings to make ends meet – even dipping into their daughter’s college fund – it is painfully obvious the only thing that can be done is sell the house.

However, after meeting the obnoxiously perky new owner Jordan, who gushes about all the stuff she plans to do to the house, Ellen can’t stand the idea of anyone else living in the house that was her and her family’s home. To prevent this, she decides to burn the house down rather than let anyone else to live, love, eat and raise children in it. Let them build a new one, but no one else will inhabit her beloved home.

Adding to her problems, her oldest daughter, ten year old Sara, is having great difficulty dealing with the divorce and move, even to the point of scrounging her birthday money, a donation jar she set up for a fictitious homeless family, and forging a letter, supposedly from Ellen and Sam, to the new owners with the money she thought was what they had paid, $450 (she’d overheard her parents say four fifty was a good offer).

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast fun read with the occasional emotionally heart-tugging moment, and I could really relate to Ellen’s feelings. I stayed an extra year in a bad relationship just because I loved the house we lived in so much. I had a nice garden, my childhood pet is buried there, and the hash marks on the inside of the pantry door with the dates and names of which child’s height was captured for as long the door hung there unpainted. The people who bought the house has made so many changes to it that it’s no longer recognizable as the home I knew.

Breezy, but with a purpose, I would recommend House & Home as a pleasurable read. I give House & Home 3 1/2 out of 5 stars. :-)

Thanks to Lisa at Books on the Brain and Trisha at Hey Lady, Whatcha Readin’? for including me in this bloggedy tour :-D

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