We don’t need more memories. It’s hard enough trying to get a handle on the ones we’ve got. “Goodbye, Vitamin” by Rachel Khong (CBR#10, 21)

goodbyevitaminA disillusioned, recently dumped 30 something going back home to help care for a parent but ending up healing themselves in the process is not a new plotline. Dealing with the pain and frustration of watching someone you love deteriorate from Alzheimer’s isn’t either. This little book tackles both without becoming overly melodramatic.

At the request of her mother, Ruth moves back to Los Angeles from San Francisco in order to help her care for her father, who is quickly succumbing to dementia. Mourning an abrupt break up with her fiance, Ruth escapes to the comfort of her childhood home and friends and sets up shop as her father’s companion.

The story is told in a series of journal entries. Some are written in the present by Ruth, and others are quotes from a journal that her father kept of things that Ruth did and said as a child that amused or endeared him.

It’s a book about history. Both Ruth and her father journal their histories.  Her father is a former history professor and Ruth is a sonogram technician who reveals to parents the first look at their children; a history not yet lived. It’s also about how a shared history can be perceived and remembered different ways. Ruth has fond memories of her father, but her younger brother Linus, who lived at home years after Ruth left for college, resents his father’s drinking and his treatment of their mother. 

What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That  it has only to do with who we were around that person – – what we felt about that person.

Kong’s writing is very conversational but melancholy. Its tone is almost the equivalent of asking a friend how they are doing and they answer only “Ok.” If it was a longer book, I think that could become tiresome, but it works here. It’s just a peek at how this family deals with crisis and learns to negotiate what is happening and what will happen. More than a book about Alzheimer’s, it’s a book about history and memory within complex family relationships.

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Remembering for both of them. “Salt Houses” by Hala Alyan (CBR#10, 20)

salthousesThere are many ways to approach a review of this book.  “Salt Houses” is about a  family constantly displaced through the generations by war. It is about the loss of a cultural identity and the struggle to find one. It is about finding who you are and being true to yourself no matter how difficult it may be for those around you. I prefer to think of it as a love story.

Steeped in the conflicts of the Middle East from after World War II to present day, the story follows four generations of the Yacoub family from Palestine to Kuwait, Amman, Paris, Boston and Beirut; each generation moving further and further away from their Palestinian roots. Despite the novel beginning with Alia’s parents, the patriarch and matriarch of this family are Atef and Alia.  Early into their marriage, both suffer a great loss but are unable to mourn together. Adrift in their grief, they rebuild their relationship into a strong but rocky foundation for the next generations. At the heart of the story, is the relationship between them, their children and grandchildren.

Atef wants to tell his children that they don’t understand, that their view from the sidelines is incomplete, that somehow in the murky cave of his marriage – – not exactly happy but not unhappy either, given to strain, months at a time when Alia retreats into her fury and  Atef into himself – – is a miraculous conch of love, something unpolished but alive, pulsing.

Each chapter switches point of view from family member to family member through the years and, while sometimes a little difficult to follow, this gives a richer more complex portrait of each character.  Weaving between each nuclear family and extended family summer vacations,  the relationships between the characters and their struggles both internal and within the family at large are explored; wounds are poked and fires are stoked but there is always an underlying sense of solidarity.

Epic multi generational books are always at their most compelling for me when you begin to see  how the characters become who they are. This novel is about what Atef and Alia send out into the world. It’s about how their fears, grief, love and hope shape the lives of their children and how those children shape the lives of their children.

Hala Alyan is an award-winning poet, and that is certainly evident in her writing here. This is an achingly beautiful book. From city to city, and house to house, the Yacoub family build and rebuild their lives each carrying with them the memory of the homes they have made together and apart.

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I will solve you. “How to Stop Time” by Matt Haig (CBR#10, 19)

howtostoptimeThis is a melancholy little book about what it means to live almost forever. Think “Interview with a Vampire” without vampires.  Tom Hazard, a man of many names and times, is over 400 years old.  Tom is not immortal but ages VERY slowly. The explanation for this is some kind of genetic thing that kicks in at puberty, physically aging those with the gene around 10 years for every 100.

The obvious things occur here: watching loved ones age and die, constantly moving and changing identities initially to avoid superstitious village folk and then to escape notice of the government and scientists, the mental fatigue of endlessly living, and bearing witness to the atrocities of repeating histories.

It occurred to me that human beings didn’t live beyond a hundred because they simply weren’t up for it. Psychologically, I mean. You kind of ran out. There wasn’t enough self to keep going. You grew too bored in your own mind. Of the way life repeated itself. How, after awhile, it wasn’t a smile or gesture that you hadn’t seen before. There wasn’t a change in the world order the didn’t echo other changes in the world order. And the news stop being new.

We meet Tom in the present, but the story goes back and forth through time. Adrift after the murder of his mother, Tom finds refuge with a pair of young sisters, one of whom he falls in love with, but realizes that he puts anyone one that he cares about in danger. After a couple hundred years of drifting around the world, he meets Agnes who offers the security of a group for people like Tom, The Albatross Society. Run by a very Lestat like man, Hendrich, Tom soon finds out that the price of this “protection” is not worth paying.

I snatched this up when I saw it on the bestseller shelf at the library.  It wasn’t on my radar yet, but it was totally up my alley.  It was kind of  a mixed bag, in the end. I really liked that the main character adjusted to the times: antiquated word choices and speech patterns lasting through the centuries can become exhausting in books like this. The idea that the persecution of someone like Tom would move from torch and pitchfork to scientific guinea pig was an interesting point. There were many clever insights on how people never learn from their mistakes and if given the perspective of centuries, might learn a little something.

The longer you live, the more you realize that nothing is fixed. Everyone will become a refugee if they live long enough. Everyone would realize their nationality means little in the long run. Everyone would see their worldviews challenged and disproved. Everyone would realize that the thing that defines a human being is being a human.

Sadly, it suffers from a mild case of what I call “Forrest Gump” syndrome. Too many encounters with too many historically famous characters. The historical name dropping became a little tedious, and frankly, didn’t really add anything to the story.  The story also took a fairly abrupt turn at the end that in retrospect maybe I should have seen coming, but it took me by surprise.  It was a quick read, entertaining,  and Haig is an excellent writer. It just didn’t wow me like I thought it would.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.


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Thoughts have wings. “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin (CBR#10, 18)

immortalistsThis one is an interesting look at the relationships of four siblings through the lens of one shared experience in childhood. After hearing that a fortune-teller in the neighborhood can tell you the exact date of your death, Daniel (11) coaxed his siblings Varya (13), Klara (9) and Simon (7) to pay her a visit. Four bored kids looking for something to pass the time in the hot city summer are each given a date that will shape the trajectory of their lives.

They began together: before any of them were people, they were eggs, four out of their mother’s millions. Astonishing, that they could diverge so dramatically in their temperaments, their fatal flaws – like strangers caught for seconds in the same elevator.

The youngest siblings chase life. Simon drops out of high school to run away with his recently graduated sister Klara. San Francisco in the 1980’s is a place where they both can discover themselves. Simon can more freely live his life as a young gay man. Klara can work on her magic show, carrying on the tradition of her grandmother. Simon hurries to experience everything while he can; the good and the bad. Klara seeks the possibilities of life through magic; an alternate reality.

The two oldest siblings find comfort instead in routine and structure. They both go to college, forge careers and take on the responsibility of caring for their mother. Daniel becomes a doctor in the military deciding who is fit for service. The person who decides the fate of others. Varya becomes a scientist focusing on longevity–how to keep death at bay and live a longer life.  Experimenting with herself as well as her lab animals, she “lives a lesser life to live a longer one”.

Each of them carries the weight of the fortune teller’s predictions. Are their deaths fated or have they lived their lives with an eye toward their death? How much of what happens to them is self-fulfilling prophecy?

…the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations.

How would knowing the exact date of your death effect how you live your life? It’s certainly not a new idea, but Benjamin takes an interesting spin on it here. It’s not a single person but a family. It’s not a solitary pursuit.

There were parts of this book that I loved and parts that were confusing and ultimately unsatisfying.  The book is broken into 4 parts: one for each sibling. In a couple of places, it was unclear to me exactly what happened, particularly in Daniel’s story. The end of Klara’s story didn’t really ring true to me. Benjamin seemed to be setting up something and then took a completely different turn. Had I not become invested in these characters, I wouldn’t have found these things as problematic, but I did. I have become tired of a lot of contemporary writers who center their stories around navel gazing  and insufferable characters that grow up in New York City. Thankfully, this one had characters that I could get behind and Benjamin is a good writer. Anyone who can come up with this gem has some talent:

She understands, too, the loneliness of parenting, which is the loneliness of memory – to know that she connects the future unknowable to her parents with a past unknowable to her child.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Always Mañana. Tomorrow. “Refugee” by Alan Gratz (CBR#10, 17)

refugeeYoung Adult fiction has been in heavy rotation in my reading for a good number of years now. Now that my kid is in middle school, I have a lot of really great books to pass on to him, but I have found that the bulk of  it (aside from vampirey melodrama which I am sure he will have zero interest in) are dystopian trilogies. He flew through the Westerfeld Leviathan books (if anyone can recommend steampunk books appropriate for a middle schooler, let me know),  Hunger Games, Maze Runner and is now embarking on the Divergent series, which I never did get around to reading. Searching for something that addresses what some kids his age experience in their lives is a little harder to find.  He is a little too young yet for something like “The Hate U Give.” He needs a year or two before he can tackle that one and the John Green and Rainbow Rowell books.  It’s that spot between “Harry Potter”  and “Eleanor Park” that I’m trying to discover.  So, when I heard about “Refugees”, I  requested the book from the library to read myself in hopes that this might be something for him to read that didn’t involve dirigibles, teenaged guinea pigs or enforced population and mind control. (All fine things to read about people, but just trying to give the kid options).

It is the story of 3 twelve/thirteen year olds and their families fleeing their countries in seek of a safer and better life.  Josef, flees Berlin in 1938, with his mother, father and sister Ruby aboard a cruise ship of fellow Jewish families bound for Cuba. In 1994, Isabel, her pregnant mother, father, grandfather and neighbors leave Cuba on a homemade boat heading towards Miami. After a bomb  leaves Mahmoud’s brother on a ledge staring into the empty space that moments before held the family’s television and front wall of their apartment, he leaves with his mother, father and brother on an arduous trek from Aleppo, Syria to Germany in 2015.

What I appreciate most about the book is that it is accessible for middle schoolers without dumbing it down or trying to paint a pretty picture to soften the blow.  Their journeys are harrowing and often it is the children who are helping to hold up the parents. With the Coast Guard bearing down on them, it is Isabel who must help them reach the shore while her father tends to her mother who has gone into labor in their makeshift boat. When Josef’s father is too damaged by his imprisonment in a concentration camp, Josef must stand up for his family and stand up to the ship’s captain and crew. Mahmoud’s shame and then anger at the Greek ferry-boat passenger’s reaction to the Muslim refugees on the boat praying and “ruining” the vacation view is what pushes him to break through the silence when his parents cannot.

“When they stayed where they were supposed to be – in the ruins of Aleppo or behind the fences of a refugee camp – people could forget about them. But when refugees did something they didn’t want them to do – when they tried to cross the border into their country, or slept on the front stoops of their shops, or jumped in front of their cars, or prayed on the decks of their ferries – that’s when people couldn’t ignore them any longer. “

This is a great book for middle schoolers and grown ups alike. It’s an important book, particularly now, and a good reminder of what was and still is an ongoing struggle for many people in the world.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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A boy and his parrot. “The Final Solution: A Story of Detection” by Michael Chabon (CBR#10, 16)

thefinalsolutionI’m a fan of a Michael Chabon. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” is an amazing book. “Telegraph Avenue” is one of my favorites as well. Those are serious tomes, so I was interested in reading this little book to see how he manages to encapsulate his general style of verbose prose into a novella.

In 1944, a retired British detective in his twilight years is raising bees at his small cottage in the English countryside. He becomes involved in the investigation of a murder in his village by way of finding a young German boy’s missing parrot.

First, I have to say that this is apparently supposed to be an imagining of Sherlock Holmes in retirement. Having never read any Sherlock Holmes (I know, I know. I’ll get to it eventually), I can’t really speak to how that works, if it works or how important that is to the plot. Perhaps I am not the best person to judge this book. I had no idea that it was even about that until I read some other reviews about the book AFTER I had read it.

What I can say is that I enjoyed it. Chabon can turn a phrase and always, always  creates full-bodied characters. His attention to detail, the nuances of the characters, their mannerisms, how they move, bring them to life for me.  An elderly detective struggling to piece out the mystery with the memory loss of aging thwarting his efforts.  A young German boy traumatized and muted by war lovingly caring for his parrot. I could spend a series of novels with those two.

Understanding that this is just a novella, it still felt like an outline to me. To go into such depth with the characters and the setting in such a short piece worked at the expense of the actual mystery which could have been fleshed out a bit more. So much of the actual  mystery solving seemed to be going on inside the head of the retired detective that the leaps made to the conclusion felt rushed. This may be a Holmesy thing too that I am missing out on. Probably should add that to my TBR. So many books. So little time.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Another man’s fate. “Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue (CBR#10, 15)

beholdthedreamersThe story’s premise sounded promising: a young family from Cameroon try to make a life for themselves in New York City just before the bottom falls out of stock market and on the brink of swearing-in the first African-American President of the United States. Jende works hard at his new job as a chauffeur for a big shot at Lehman Brothers. Neni takes care of their young son, Liomi, while studying around the clock in hopes of getting into pharmacy school.  The narrative alternates between the husband and wife, weaving their home and work life together. The friends that remind them of home and the wealthy Edwards family that they work for are in stark contrast with one another.   I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did.

Jende and Neni are the most clearly drawn characters here, but they often fall into either oddly uncharacteristic behavior or become one-dimensional. The wealthy white family and their friends are rendered only as stereotypes. At first, I thought it was intentional on the part of the author. The vacuous housewives tell Neni about the benefits of prenatal yoga classes as she serves them canapés at a party in the Hamptons. The distant workaholic boss half listens and feigns interest in Jende’s life.  The whim of white privilege holds the fate of this family of immigrants in its hands. But, Jende and Neni’s characters devolve into alternating hand-wringing helplessness or violent and conniving stereotypes of their own, so I’m not so sure any of it was intentional.

It was a frustrating read for me because the components for a great story were there but were just executed poorly. I wish that Mbue had just stayed focused on Jende and Neni as a struggling immigrant family. If she didn’t delve as much into the personal turmoil of the employer’s family and used them only as a foil for the Jonga family, it might have worked better for me. Initially, their lives were so clearly drawn and the tenuous hold on the future that they both envisioned was palpable. At some point, it just lost its way.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.


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