we are water

As a fan of Wally Lamb and his previous work, I was excited to get a copy of We Are Water for Christmas (2013, ahem). I added it to my TBR and there it sat until now! From Goodreads:

In middle age, Annie Oh—wife, mother, and outsider artist—has shaken her family to its core. After twenty-seven years of marriage and three children, Annie has fallen in love with Viveca, the wealthy, cultured, confident Manhattan art dealer who orchestrated her professional success. Annie and Viveca plan to wed in the Oh family’s hometown of Three Rivers, Connecticut, where gay marriage has recently been legalized. But the impending wedding provokes some very mixed reactions and opens a Pandora’s box of toxic secrets—dark and painful truths that have festered below the surface of the Ohs’ lives.

This has all the great drama I’ve come to expect from Lamb, with interweaving story lines and multiple characters with complex, intricately drawn-out histories. Everyone is damaged and has devastating secrets. They’ve weathered trauma after trauma that come to a boiling point in an expected way. Lamb has a way of making the characters very fleshed out, even those you think are secondary. The alternating perspectives each chapter worked for me—you get to live inside the minds of the characters as they go about normal days and reflect on their pasts. We Are Water is equal parts intrapersonal and interpersonal; it’s easy to become immersed in the thoughts and backstories of the members of the Oh family.

While I did get sucked in to the novel, the characters weren’t as intriguing as those in Lamb’s older books, like She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True; they were all pretty shallow. It read a little bit like a soap opera at times, but more sophisticated. Everyone frequently posed rhetorical questions in their very lengthy inner monologues, which became glaring to me after a while. I bet this could have been shaved down about 100 pages and still been just as good.

There are some heart-stopping scenes, though, especially the disastrous flood and an event at the end I don’t want to spoil. Although I felt the characters lacking a bit, Lamb does portray them all with compassion (as he’s known for), and he’s just awesome and sweeping family dramas where so much more lies below the surface. There are many elements here (child abuse, LBGTQ marriage, infidelity, and more) but it doesn’t feel bogged down, each issue is handled in a way that is relevant to the overall story.

We Are Water is my fifth of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read/listened from July 27 to August 1, 2015.

transatlantic

In March, I thought it would be fitting to get in (stay in?) the Irish spirit with TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, an Ireland native whose book focuses on several people and their dealings with the country. From Goodreads:

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War. Dublin, 1845 and ’46: On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave. New York, 1998: Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.

These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.

I found TransAtlantic to be a quiet read, with my interest ebbing and flowing a bit, I think because it’s laid out like a short story collection with one family as the underlying unifier. I was absolutely enthralled by the opening two parts, focusing on Alcock and Brown and their historic 1919 flight across the Atlantic ocean (the first ever), and Frederick Douglass’s visit to Ireland in the 1840s. The middle waned for me, especially the Sen. George Mitchell section, but picked up steam again for the last third. I thought McCann’s writing was soft and lovely, and I was on the edge of my seat for that opening chapter flying across the Atlantic—the urgency of the action was intense.

Though I enjoyed the book as a whole immensely, I do wish that the characters could have been more fully realized. I would have read a stand-alone book on Alcock and Brock or Douglass’s Ireland trip. Especially Douglass—McCann takes this piece of history and paints a vivid picture, but I wonder what Douglass, a former slave, thought of the dire conditions and abject poverty he surely encountered in 1845 Ireland? Although probably wisely, McCann doesn’t venture to imagine what Douglass may have been thinking on that subject (perhaps he didn’t document those thoughts in a diary or letters). I appreciate the level of research McCann must have put into TransAtlantic for the three main “crossings,” but the family stuff kind of fell a little flat for me in places. Although I did like Lily’s story best. I think the time-jumping was just a bit confusing, I had to keep reminding myself who was whom’s mother.

I’m so glad I finally got around to reading TransAtlantic. It reminded me of Almost Famous Women (my review) and Burial Rites (my review), in writing style and being fact-based historical fiction. Lovely book.

TransAtlantic is my third of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from March 15 to 31, 2015.

flags of our fathers

Staying on track for my TBR Pile Challenge, last month I read Flags of Our Fathers by James D. Bradley with Ron Powers. From Goodreads:

In this unforgettable chronicle of perhaps the most famous moment in American military history, James Bradley has captured the glory, the triumph, the heartbreak, and the legacy of the six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Here is the true story behind the immortal photograph that has come to symbolize the courage and indomitable will of America.

In February 1945, American Marines plunged into the surf at Iwo Jima—and into history. Through a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire that left the beaches strewn with comrades, they battled to the island’s highest peak. And after climbing through a landscape of hell itself, they raised a flag.

Now the son of one of the flagraisers has written a powerful account of six very different young men who came together in a moment that will live forever.

I have had my eye on Flags of Our Fathers ever since I first spotted it sitting on my grandmother’s shelf several years ago. I have a minuscule connection to this book—the author and his father, one of the men in the iconic photograph, are from Antigo, the same small up-north Wisconsin town as my father. My grandmother was undoubtedly acquainted with the Bradley family, and our family has used its funeral home services over the years. When my dad and I were in Honolulu last summer, we visited the Pearl Harbor memorial site and he bought me a copy of the book from the gift shop. I’m not sure exactly what compelled me to read Flags right when I did, but my reading of it just so happened to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the battle at Iwo Jima and the flagraising. I love when that sort of serendipity happens!

Flags relates the harrowing battle very well—the whole middle third of the book covering this is hard to put down. I learned some abhorrent facts, but I appreciate that Bradley was generally fair in relating the details of the war, not blaming one side or the other. He is biased on the subject of his father, of course, but that’s not distracting or overwhelming. There were a few repetitive statements throughout, and occasionally Bradley inserted himself and his thoughts or feelings into the story that pulled me out of it a little. He did an excellent job of conveying the horrors of war, and this lengthy, confusing, and exhausting battle in particular.

Further, Bradley went on to relate what happened to the three surviving flagraisers after the war, which I feel is just as important to examine in any discussion of any war. I didn’t really know much about bond tours before reading this book, and how its a relic of the past now, something that would never happen today. With the lives of the flagraisers covered from youth to death, Flags provides a cross-section of what war can do to a person’s psyche, too, from post-traumatic stress disorder to an inflated, false sense of celebrity to the desire to retreat from unwanted attention and live a normal life. What happens when everyone insists you’re a hero when you just happened to be in a certain place at a certain time, just doing your duty like everyone else? It really speaks to the profound respect and loyalty these men had to each other, that just because they put up a flag they knew they weren’t any different from or more special than all the other men on that island, especially those that died there.

Flags of Our Fathers is my second of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from February 18 to 28, 2015.

brain on fire

I know it’s only the first month of the year, but I’m on track so far for my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge! The first book I decided to read from my list was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. From Goodreads:

When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened? In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

In August 2013 I actually attended Cahalan’s appearance in Kansas City for an author event sponsored by Rainy Day Books. She was bubbly and personable, and there was a particularly sweet moment when, during the Q&A, a mother expressed her gratitude at Cahalan’s book raising awareness for neurological diseases such as these, of which her young daughter suffered as well. The girl was there too, and Cahalan took her up on stage to sit with her.

Brain on Fire is an interesting read—her descent into “madness,” to the bafflement of many doctors, was harrowing and shocking. The best part is that Cahalan brings to light the prospect that perhaps those with undiagnosed “mystery” illnesses, or illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism, say, may actually have a disease that’s treatable and curable. How many people have died in situations like the one Cahalan faced? The brain is a fascinating and enigmatic subject.

While I do think the pacing and layout was done well, the writing lacked in places for me. Some of it was repetitive and some of it felt like trying to hard to be literary, like the book couldn’t decide whether to be a narrative memoir (too many adverb…) or an investigative scientific research piece—admittedly I glazed over many of the scientific descriptions. I also didn’t get a great sense of who Cahalan was before the onset of the disease. A bizarre behavior manifests seemingly out of nowhere, and we just take her word for it that it was uncharacteristic? I mean, yeah, I guess so… I just wish we would have gotten to know Cahalan better beforehand so the unusual symptoms could carry more cause for alarm. I didn’t feel emotionally invested or connected to her.

But, if you like the TV show House and have an interest in books about science, health, and mysteries, I think this one is worth a read.

Brain on Fire is my first of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from January 23 to 25, 2015.

tbr pile challenge 2015

2015tbrbuttonThird year’s the charm?? I have failed the TBR Pile Challenge twice in a row now (6/12 in 2013, 5/12 in 2014). I feel like I could do this challenge forever. I will always have books waiting to be read! I have high hopes for this year’s challenge, though. I ended up on a major book-buying binge in 2013 but never got around to them. This is the year: 2015 TBR Pile Challenge!

Here are the rules: in twelve months, read twelve books that have been sitting on your shelves unread for at least one year (so, nothing published on or after January 1, 2014). Adam of Roof Beam Reader (the challenge’s host) allows for two alternates in case you find you don’t like/can’t finish one of your chosen twelve. (Note: it doesn’t have to be in any particular order and you can go at your own pace.)

As I finish the books I’ll write a review post here on the blog, and then check them off and add the review post links on my master list page under the Book Challenges tab in the menu here.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena … Anthony Marra (2013)
Blood Meridian … Cormac McCarthy (1985)
Brain on Fire … Susannah Cahalan (2012)
Columbine … Dave Cullen (2009)
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation … Michael Pollan (2013)
Flags of Our Fathers … James D. Bradley (2000)
In the Heart of the Sea … Nathaniel Philbrick (1999)
The Painted Girls … Cathy Marie Buchanan (2012)
Someone Knows My Name … Lawrence Hill (2007)
The Son … Philipp Meyer (2012)
Transatlantic … Colum McCann (2013)
We Are Water … Wally Lamb (2013)

Alternates
Packing for Mars … Mary Roach (2010)
Zone One … Colson Whitehead (2011)