our souls at night

Over Labor Day weekend, I decided to have a mini-readathon with the three short books that all happened to come through at the library for me at the same time. First up was Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. From Goodreads:

In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf’s inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis’s wife. His daughter lives hours away in Colorado Springs, her son even farther away in Grand Junction, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in houses now empty of family, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with.

A lot of other reviews use the words “bittersweet” and “sad” to describe this book, and I definitely agree. Haruf does an amazing job of bringing out the feelings of loneliness, and our innate need for intimacy and companionship. The prose is spare and simple, but beautifully constructed. It was a perfect little book (only about 170 pages) for a readathon, and a touching story about not giving up on your future and really living, no matter your age. Their conversations were heartbreaking sometimes, but their bravery in starting a new chapter at their age was inspiring.

I think though, I had trouble with how quickly Addie and Louis’s relationship moved—just didn’t find it all that believable. I also struggled with the behaviors and attitudes of their adult children… if you read it you’ll see what I mean.

Our Souls at Night was worth reading for me, though, but probably because it was so short. This was my first and only Haruf read, and I’m not sure it affected me so much to want to read more of his books. Maybe you need to be an established fan to appreciate this one more than I did. I also think I’m riding a non-fiction wave right now and fiction just isn’t doing it for me in general at the moment.

Read from September 4 to 5, 2015.

an untamed state

After reading Bad Feminist and seeing this one all over “best of” lists last year, I knew I had to read Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. From Goodreads:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

What a powerful, harrowing book. The brutal violence during Miri’s captivity took my breath away—it reads like a bona fide thriller. Scenes flashing back to Miri’s childhood and marriage are interspersed throughout the first part, letting the reader get to know all the players better and Miri’s mindset before her 13-day ordeal began. (That’s one shining light for the reader—you know she will be freed after 13 days. Miri does not, though.) The second half of the book covers the aftermath of the event—Miri’s fragile, volatile mental and emotional health as a result of the physical and psychological trauma she endured. Not only Miri suffers during and after her kidnapping, her family does as well. They all have to reconcile with what happened to her and find a “new normal” somehow.

I do believe An Untamed State lives up to the hype—it makes a mighty impression and is not a story you’ll soon forget. However, for me personally, I found the characters to be generally unlikable. I don’t need all my protagonists in entertainment to be likable, I just got the impression we’re supposed to like Miri and her husband. They’re supposed to be great star-crossed soulmates or something, but their overall mutual unkindness to each other and immaturity was unappealing to me. I think I would have liked more insight into the socioeconomic, political, and cultural context within this story—Miri’s privilege over her captors and Haitians living in abject poverty is mentioned but not discussed in depth.

An Untamed State delves deep into the very real issue of rape and violence against women that are rampant in societies all over the world. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so thoughtfully bold on the subject. The sheer terror and fear Miri felt, both during and after her kidnapping, were palpable. Gay doesn’t hold back on the shocking sexual and physical atrocities committed on Miri, which may be more than some readers can stomach, but sticking through the whole book is worth it.

Read from August 7 to 23, 2015.

madison audiobooks

My husband and I just got back from six wonderful days in Wisconsin, visiting family and having a ton of fun! Of course I forgot my camera, so there are no pictures. We listened to two audiobooks on the road, one new to me and one I read on paper last year. Both of these were absolutely perfect for the car.

On the way up we heard The Daily Show crew read America: The Audiobook. Sigh, I miss Jon Stewart already. Although America is slightly out of date now (released in 2004), it was still a fun and funny look at our political history. I loved how it was a group effort, with not only Stewart narrating but also Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee, and more. The only bummer was that it was abridged, which I generally try to avoid, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything here. [Listened to audiobook on August 11, 2015.]

During our drive home we listened to Rob Delaney’s Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. I loved it as much as I loved it last year when I read it on hardcover (my review), but I enjoyed it even more hearing Delaney narrate. He’s just the best! I hope to have a chance to watch his new show Catastrophe soon, too. [Listened to audiobook on August 16, 2015.]

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.

pilgrim’s wilderness

I saw Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia pop up a couple years ago when it first came out and decided to give it a listen on audio when it became available at the library.From Goodreads:

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is the bizarre and utterly fascinating story of how Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale and his 15-child self-named Pilgrim family came to settle deep in one of the most remote parts of Alaska, motivated by a belief that a simple pioneer life could be lived there in the twenty-first century. Celebrated by locals for his anti-establishment ways, Hale was eventually exposed as a cult leader-like sociopath with an extraordinary criminal past who brutalized his wife and children and kept them isolated, ignorant, and under his control.

Whoa, what a fascinating read! I could barely stop listening, it just became more and more twisted as components of Hale’s life fell apart. It went from bizarre to icky to downright frightening. The story is interesting on many levels, from the in-depth look at this family’s interpersonal dynamics to the external factors working against their lifestyle. I loved how McCarthy, Alaska was basically another “character” here. I’m not sure I dug the author’s infusing himself into the story, but, with investigative journalistic non-fiction, I understand it. Just maybe didn’t work for me so well in this case.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a great read for anyone interested in off-the-grid lifestyles, religious extremism and cults, environmentalism, small town community, and more. At first blush it does seem like an unbelievable tale, but it’s all darkly true. It was complementary to a recent novel I read, too, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Listened to audiobook from June 25 to 29, 2015.

our endless numbered days

A few days ago I finished reading Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, another one I borrowed from the library. From Goodreads:

Peggy Hillcoat is eight years old when her survivalist father, James, takes her from their home in London to a remote hut in the woods and tells her that the rest of the world has been destroyed. Deep in the wilderness, Peggy and James make a life for themselves. They repair the hut, bathe in water from the river, hunt and gather food in the summers and almost starve in the harsh winters. They mark their days only by the sun and the seasons. When Peggy finds a pair of boots in the forest and begins a search for their owner, she unwittingly begins to unravel the series of events that brought her to the woods and, in doing so, discovers the strength she needs to go back to the home and mother she thought she’d lost.

I loved this one! It got off to a slightly slow start for me but once they were in the cabin I was hooked. Fuller’s prose is gentle and lyrical, subtly showing how memories can be tricky (we’re in Peggy’s head for the entirety of the book), and things may not always be how they seem. I loved how music played an important role in the story’s relationships between Peggy and each of her parents, and the descriptions of nature are vivid and wonderful.

Peggy was such a heartbreaking character. She was so trusting and innocent, with essentially nine years of her life spent in isolation thinking everyone and everything she loved has been destroyed. Both her parents are interesting if not entirely likable, and there could be great discussion about their actions and behaviors, to each other and how they effected Peggy, in a book club setting.

I had a hard time putting this down. Fuller manages to keep the story from becoming too melodramatic or sensational, while still throwing in curve balls in the form of simple yet shattering sentences that compel you to go on. I thought a lot about trust, conspiracy theories, innocence, and complex familial relationships while reading Our Endless Numbered Days. I highly recommend it!

Read from June 6 to 11, 2015.