I have long been a fan of Sue Miller's work but this latest novel lseems to lack the undercarriage of solid narrative conflict that usually serves as a stage upon which all the various family issues are enacted. What's this story all about? I kept reading and reading, waiting for something to happen and was left with what seemed like one of those (admitttedly well-written) holiday newsletters. The work compares unfavorably to "The Good Mother" and "While You Were Gone" where good solid moral dilemmas ignite the characters and power the narrrative. I have great faith in MIller's work, however, and I am sure she can and will do better.
This one begins like they tell you how to run a marathon: start slow and get slower. And it's a hard call to rate a book that has so few parts for women. Mostly this book is about men and all their stuff - golf, drinking, farming, music gigs, coupling and uncoupling with various women who are only interesting as sexual partners.
Aren't there any female (or male, for that matter) editors who could have steered this book towards a more balanced perspective?
There were some good prose snippets, with good flow and musicality, but mostly this was a flat narrative. Not much happens, and character development? Not so much, I'm afraid.
It's all about men and how they go about populating their lives with accessories: farm equipment, kids, drinking, people, music.
I am not so much a fan of "plot" for its own sake, and I can just as easily enjoy a book that meanders through decent and layered psychobabble. However, without any interior landscape nor circumstantial forces that drive the characters, "Shotgun Lovesongs" doesn't have much to grab on to. Excellent title, though.
A smaller group of characters and their stories would have served to provide some fresh depth, and to give spark and nuance to the monochromatic scenes, and a few piercing insights here and there wouldn't have hurt, either.
We are well into the 2000's, and fiction still is all about who is hooking up with whom. Isn't there anything else to think about? To write about?
This was/is a strictly "read while you're doing something else" kind of book.
Having read, devoured and otherwise cerebrally ingested Wally Lamb's other books many times over, I was looking forward to "we are water".
I must first point out the book's central oxymoron. Two female protagonists are getting married. How hip with the times. One partner was raised with abuse and with no material nor cultural advantage, and I mean…zip, nada, zilch. She meets her partner by chance at a gallery and then becomes a kept woman. Well, she does supply the art for which her partner becomes wealthy, but how is this any different, except for the fact that the principals are the same gender - than the 1950's version of this same rescue story of a "woman in distress"?
Wally usually takes on highly ambiguous situations with a keen understanding and writes with skillful interpretation, with lots of elegant emotional and geographical description thrown in. However, I cannot say that "we are water" is up to Wally Lamb's standards - at least not as I have come to understand them. The obstacles to my enjoyment of this book are easy to enumerate as follows.
1) "we are water" is all about highly-educated, wealthy elitist characters with "first world" problems. There is a less-advantaged hispanic family thrown in for "diversity" I guess; someone's "help" brought along to assist with the logistics of a wedding, and wordsmith Wally deftly adds their little backstory as just more cumin in the curry.
2) The artist character gets her start by making little Joseph Cornell shadow boxes. I can say that nearly every book I've read where a female artist becomes successful she starts with little Joseph Cornell shadow boxes. Do writers just not know how to describe the visual arts and are incapable of giving the artists in their stories anything to create besides these (becoming trite) mini-scenes?
3) The female protagonists all talk with what I call Piping Rock Lockjaw. Those who've been raised in private schools and country clubs know what I mean. For simplicity's sake - let's just say they talk in that 1950's Hollywood-speak, sounding like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, but with drawn-out syllables to the "drama". I actually thought the first sentences read by the Anna character - pronounced "Ah-nah" - were part of a parody of snobspeak. Her first scenes were meandering thoughts on "Viveca"'s wedding dress. Just sounded like something out of "The Onion", or "Hyperbole and a Half".
4) I can't stand listening to George Guidall, who always brings to my mind a matronly picture of Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie", wearing a wallpaper-like flowered dress, white gloves, and boxy, capacious purse carried on his/her forearm, sort of like Queen Elizabeth. Add to that the fact that Guidall can't seem to read more than three words without taking a breath and you get a barely endurable Guidall endurance-fest. Not my most pleasant listening experience.
5) The names of the characters are pretentious, snobbish, elitist and non-relateable. "Viveca"?? Really?. "Orion", with his constellation-of-stars reference? The pompous one-letter surname "O"??
I am being harsh, because the shallowness of all these factors derailed for me the devastating emotional issues with which this extended family grappled. And grappled successfully, I thought. The pay dirt is there and is pure Wally Lamb. But this book makes you dig your way through a lot of shallow sandboxes to get there.
Elizabeth Berg is one of those writers who explores just about all aspects of the human condition - and "condition" is the operative word, as in we are al here "conditionally" and must navigate our lives with attention and mindfulness.
Having said that, what happens is that you never quite know what you're getting when you sign on to a literary trip with Berg. I always think I know her, but am always jolted from my complacency.
After very recently finishing "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted" and being satiated with comic as well as tragic (or at least challenging) moments in life, any life, I have expanded my reading repertoire into the short story genre and was pleasantly surprised. Berg has a few substantial funny (if not downright slapstick) bones in her vision and deploys them well in this story collection.
But now, to my point - "Talk Before Sleep" could have been an inspiring exploration into the experience of the end of life; after all, loss is universal to us all, part of the admission price we pay to enter the planet and does not have to be a monochromatic plunge into sadness and despair. But instead I found the world portrayed in here in "Talk Before Sleep" to be narrow and sad.
But I will continue to seek out work by Elizabeth Berg, one of my favorite authors, and one of the few whose work I download without even having to listen to a sample.
As the other reviewers have shared, this book is more of a contemplative exploration on grief and loss, than a story in the conventional sense. Harding's writing is elegant and throughly crafted with layers of detail, as he gradually progresses deeper and deeper into his own dark places, which match the dark woods near Enon, his home.
I would compare this to Joyce Carol Oates' treatment of grief in her book "A Widow's Story", which focuses more on the details and nuances of her daily life as does Harding, but her focus is more at a distance, as though she is an outsider, observing her own recovery, and recording her days as she experiences them. She certainly has plenty of "stuff" to fill her life - friends, family, a job at the top of her field, but even with all this, she is reduced to the same questions - now that the loved one is gone, what is life's meaning and how do we interpret its lessons?
Enon shows us how a a seemingly well-constructed life can implode by a single devastating loss, and how precarious are our attachments. One day it's all hanging together for Charlie, the next day his daughter is dead and his wife is gone. There certainly is no "resolution" in the conventional sense, not for this reader, anyway. I read the book twice and was twice led to the conclusion that Charlie had reached a conditional accommodation to his condition, was taking some steps to rebuild, but was certainly not yet emotionally solvent. Letting go of his dependency on prescription drugs was a start.
I applaud Harding for not turning Charlie's story into an archetypal "hero's quest" for redemption. Instead it's a realistic account of what's left to work with, and using that to restart, after all our life-sustaining resources seem to be gone.
I grabbed this book as soon as I heard an interview with the author on NPR. Based on that, I wanted to read anything by Kate Christenson and thus I was expecting a much more introspective exploration of her life. What I got instead was an extended list of unexamined life experiences, rendered factually and sounding totally banal by the narrator's sing-song-y voice. Every event, situation, item in the physical environment was made to seem oh-so "precious", with unnecessary detail which after a few chapters became just tiresome. Perhaps in the hands of a less chirpy narrator, this book would have more heft and substance. But performed as is, "Blue Plate Special" is the new "Eat Pray Love", with the same shallow, self-referential descriptions that make it a picaresque pseudo-adventure for the privileged.
Actually, the "I", Kate, the narrator of this memoir is not nearly as interesting as her mother, with her multiple marriages, breakdowns, struggles and angst, and the listener only gets a random flash of her as background noise. Sometimes I kept reading just for the purpose of finding out more of what was going on with the mom in the story.
I can't say that this book is ruined by the narrator (although for me it was), or simply that IMO Tavia Gilbert's birdsong reading gives a shallow rendering to what might be an interesting life. Might read better in print.
I'll give it a "3", though, because it satisfies one of my basic standards of read-worthiness: it's entertaining.
Once again Shriver treads the tough path through the weeds and delivers a novel that is so overstuffed and super-sized with conflict that every sentence is a gift that leaves us waiting eagerly for the next one. WIthin the novel she deftly embeds the issues of fame & notoriety, the role of food in our lives, the relative importance of family and loyalty, the role of addiction and the "addictive personality" - she gives us all of it!
Shriver's protagonist, Pandora Hafdinarsen, the almost-accidental but successful entrepreneur is jolted out of her comfort zone when her brother, a jazz pianist who is having a "rough patch", arrives in their home weighing 240 pounds more than he did the last time she saw him. This causes all manner of mayhem, particularly offending the aesthetic sensibilities of her husband, Fletcher, who is a designer and builder of art furniture in the basement of the home he shares with Pandora and his two pre-adolescent children. He is additionally an exercise maniac, riding his bicycle 50 miles per day, and a "nutritional nazi", shunning all white flour, white sugar and anything that's wrapped, packaged or processed, his primary meal consisting of brown rice and broccoli. His body is lean and spare, the perfect contrast to the excessively over-nourished-by-junk-food Edison, Pandora's brother, for whom all sorts of spatial and emotional accommodations must be made as they all attempt to deal with his extreme girth.
This is the main plot setup, but woven through the story are musings about food (she's also a former caterer) and its importance (and lack thereof), addiction, fame, loyalty, and what it means to be "successful". Pandora feels divided between her husband and her brother and this forms the fulcrum on which the novel balances perfectly, delicately, and with the precision we've come to love and admire in Shriver's writing.
I have read some reviews on other sites and there seems to be some discussion about the ending. As a reader I favor neither a 'perfect' resolution nor an open-ended plot line - what makes a novel work for me is the writer's attention to detail, characterization, layers of emotion and sense of place. It's more about the story itself, the process, rather than any particular event that signals "the end", and with "Big Brother", IMO ending is organic to the story.
Five stars all around!
I wanted to read this as soon as the book appeared in the audible.com inventory. "The Undertaking" attracted my attention as the subject is neither common nor comfortable for many. So I couldn't wait to jump right in.
Thomas Lynch is both a published poet and the director of a funeral home; perhaps an odd pairing of professions, but each job informs the other and stories of the living (as he cares for and buries the dead) flow poetically through this novel as the Huron River flows through his home town in Michigan. As Lynch anecdotally brings life to those his clients have left behind, the poetry within the prose is musical, nuanced, and sustaining.
Kevin T. Collins' performance makes a substantial contribution and I am not certain this book will impact readers in quite the same way as hearing it read with such sensitivity, emotion, and grace, and at times I could not tell if I was reading prose or poetry.
I have never read a novel of this genre, nor of this magnitude that is this nuanced, layered, and so real it gets under your skin, even though the work of P.D. James comes close. In fact I spent an entire day in Paris in my hotel room reading most of it, aided by the grey, wintery, snowy weather that boosted the eerie tone of the book, and kept me inside.
There are not many books in this, what, all-encompassing genre that we call "mystery", the books that include police procedurals, psychological thrillers, courtroom dramas, lawyer capers, that have this level of depth, and add an additional character: the geographical setting, a setting in this case intended as a joyful, benign refuge, a harbor to all who lived there, but was "broken" on so many levels, to its very core.
Tana French has a background in theater, and that came through loud and clear. There are are some of the best interrogation scenes I have ever read. I truly felt these people, I felt the strategies, the emotions, the investigational blind alleys of the two cops and the suspect, and I felt the narrator's subtleties as strongly as if I had seen this on the big screen. Stephen Hogan was truly channeling Tana French and her star gumshoe, Mike "Scorcher" Kennedy.
The set design was masterful, as was the quality of description. This reader/listener feels the presence of a harbor that is truly "broken" on all levels.
Not to detract from Hogan's performance, I did find myself hearing the voices of both Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne. Perhaps either one of those actors would be a good choice for another book in the Dublin Murder Squad series.
"Broken Harbor" is intimidating, frightening, and strikes a deep chord of vulnerability. But there is no question that within all the frailties and failings of the characters and their crumbling senses of safety and life-altering violation of their comfort zones, this is a novel of overpowering beauty.
This is "dysfunction noir", in the tradition of Tropper and Franzen, but with many more hilarious and comedic moments. Having spent many years in a profession similar to that of Finbar Dolan, the protagonist, I could completely relate to the characters in the ad agency and to their conflicts that come from the nature of the parts they must play. Basically this particular plot arc centers on the now-trite adage that the client is always right, and it doesn't matter how creatively you solve an issue, and how many branded celebrities you bring in to a campaign if the client does not relate. Fin both dislikes his job, or at least he doesn't love it, and does not feel "fulfilled" by it, but this is post-2008 financial crisis and he realizes it's a job he's been lucky enough to keep; the concept of fulfillment has been banished to job-market purgatory.
Fin's abusive childhood and his view of the familial nightmare that growing up in the Dolan family play into the present story to a large extent, without any need to hit the reader upside the head with the horrendous deviations from happy family life. There are glimpses into his past, and with those come a few of the reasons why the four siblings have become so estranged. However, the story, like life, is not without the occasional redemptive moment.
The cynical view of being creative on demand is fertile ground for humor, irony, and just plain laugh-out-loud episodes. How many times have I, or anyone else in that judgy, gossipy, whispery, micro-managed, performance-focused environment known as the office wanted to say to some co-worker or underling, or even over-ling, "I don't like your name, so from now on I'm calling you Barbara"?
Which all adds up to an unputdownable story with hilarious in-the-moment scenes from a life, traumatized from birth, channeled into some degree of success, both commercial and personal, seen through the cynical lens of Finbar Dolan.
The narration is perfect, as is the jacket cover - an "homage" to the proprietary Coca Cola font.
5 stars all on all counts.
This is a variation on the themes of "get me out of here" and facing personal demons with the inward-facing honesty required to effect any change and become a more balanced human being with a life that's on balance as well.
The story centers on the lives of three friends - all quite successful on the outside, but all immersed to varying degrees in the interior crisis mode that comes from asking yourself "what am I doing here?". They are people who are carrying on day-to-day lives that fit them, but only incompletely.
The book is well within the chick-lit genre, but has some life lessons that bear repeating, and like the title of this review, the novel's main story is about how each person tackles the life issues that frustrate, irritate, frighten, and intimidate. I'll only go for a book like this if its primary concern is not romance and relationships, and this novel deals with the larger questions.
I would have preferred a different narrator - Coleen Marlo reads way too fast and does not let the words sink in. I like her voice - it's different from who is usually on board with books like this, but she just races through the story without giving the reader time to digest each sentence. I am aware that there are speed settings for listening, but the results are not optimal and the readings always end up sounding muddy, not crisp. Perhaps the "happy medium" is what's needed here.
Still, the book is a good one, and for me, satisfied many of the reasons that I read.
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