the hearts of men

I’ve had my eye on Nickolas Butler ever since reading his debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, a couple of years ago, and put The Hearts of Men on my list as soon as it came out. And of course I’m going to read another book set in Wisconsin! From Goodreads:

Camp Chippewa, 1962. Nelson Doughty, age thirteen, social outcast and overachiever, is the Bugler, sounding the reveille proudly each morning. Yet this particular summer marks the beginning of an uncertain and tenuous friendship with a popular boy named Jonathan.

Over the years, Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father’s business into a highly profitable company. And when something unthinkable happens at a camp get-together with Nelson as Scoutmaster and Jonathan’s teenage grandson and daughter-in-law as campers, the aftermath demonstrates the depths—and the limits—of Nelson’s selflessness and bravery.

The Hearts of Men is a sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity, the challenges and rewards of lifelong friendships, the bounds of morality—and redemption.

I have some of the same feelings I had about Shotgun Lovesongs. I really like how Butler dismantles the stereotypical notions of manhood and masculinity in his stories. And he is a fantastic storyteller. I never felt the pace lagging or any unnecessary meandering in The Hearts of Men. Each section is purposeful to the overall story and message. That said, the beginning is stronger than the end, mostly because the main characters, Nelson and Jonathan, seemed so fully realized and lively as children but became flat and somewhat generic in later sections as adults. Perhaps that was intentional, though? Is Butler trying to make a point that we lose something, some spark, as we age? I’m not sure—possibly, or it could possibly have been the narrator’s interpretation didn’t handle the jumps forward in time so well for me. I liked Rachel, Jonathan’s daughter-in-law, but I would have liked her to have been more realistic and more three-dimensional—Butler had a similar issue developing women characters in Shotgun. In this story, women are central to the hearts of these men, after all.

Ultimately, The Hearts of Men is a story about boys becoming men, fathers and sons, bravery and decency, how both romantic and platonic relationships affect you, and the ubiquity of being a flawed human. Butler has a sensitive voice and his storytelling is immersive, and I’ll definitely look forward to his next book.

Listened to audiobook in May 2017.

a little life

After seeing many, many rave reviews and landing on numerous best-of lists at the end of 2015, I decided to give A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara a try despite my reservations due it to being a major chunkster. From Goodreads:

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

I will agree with most reviewers: A Little Life is an emotionally taxing book; the story is affecting, complicated, and distressing, to say the least. I found the word “devastating” in a lot of comments, however, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m naturally attracted to dark, disturbing material sometimes, but I wasn’t so upset and “destroyed” as some readers were after finishing.

My issues with A Little Life are less with the bad stuff that happens (and I agree they are truly horrid, unspeakable, unfair abuses). Let’s be honest—these (and worse) things really happen to people every day all over the world. The characters’ unwavering commitment to and deep, often unrequited love for Jude baffled me at times. I also had trouble buying that all four friends became rich and wildly successful in their highly competitive careers. And fair warning: apologies occur frequently in this book. The words “I’m sorry” appear pretty much on every single page. I started rolling my eyes at each utterance after a while. Despite being 720 pages, the vagueness throughout the story must have been intentional, too: how are 9/11 and HIV never once mentioned in a book set in New York City spanning several (seemingly recent/current) decades featuring gay characters? It bothered me while reading but on reflection I suppose to give the story a timeless atmosphere.

Much of Yanagihara’s writing is lovely, though, even hinging on poetic at times. You do get a sense for the trauma and sorrow the characters experience, as well as their happy times. I really enjoyed the backstories for JB and especially Willem in the first part of the book. I think she does a fantastic job of making these relationships all feel tangible. While there is a lot of writing here, it never felt too dense or difficult to pick up wherever I left off. Bottom line: I would recommend A Little Life to anyone interested. Give it 100 pages and see what you think at that point.

Read from January 9 to February 18, 2016.

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading? I kind of can’t believe we’re at the end of January already, and I’ve only finished one book. That’s not to say I haven’t been reading, though; I’m really trying hard to get back into a groove after hardly having the motivation, attention, or energy for it for several weeks. I’m about halfway through A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara at the moment, and hoping to finish by the end of this week! My feelings about it are a little torn, though, more than I was expecting. It’s had the greatest reviews, but there are a few stylistic things that are working against my Loving it (capital L). No spoilers! I am enjoying it a lot, though, and will definitely finish.

Other than that, the holidays are officially over (winter break ended, rehearsals starting back up) so I’m back to my usual, busy routine! I’ve missed playing bass… and so glad the holiday concerts are OVER 🙂

What are you reading this week?

slash

Of COURSE I had to read Slash by Slash last month! I tried to finish before going to his concert in Denver for our anniversary, but ended up finishing just in time for Halloween. Blurb from Goodreads:

For the first time ever, Slash tells the tale that has yet to be told from the inside: how the legendary band Guns N’ Roses came together, how they wrote the music that defined an era, how they survived insane, never-ending tours, how they survived themselves, and, ultimately, how it all fell apart. Slash is a window into the world of the notoriously private guitarist and a front seat on the roller-coaster ride that was one of history’s greatest rock n’ roll machines, always on the edge of self-destruction, even at the pinnacle of its success. Slash is everything Slash is: funny, honest, ingenious, inspiring, jaw-dropping… and, in a word, excessive.

This book is a little nuts. I was expecting more, I guess, based on the near-500 page length—more insight into his addictions and interpersonal relationships, more about his guitars and development as a player. His Guns N’ Roses anecdotes, when he goes on tangents about his guitars, and the touring are definitely the best, most engaging parts of the book. It was great to listen along to GNR’s Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion discs as I was reading about their process in writing those songs and recording the albums. Time and again Slash didn’t seem to be deeply affected by his demons, especially his drug abuse. “I OD’d and was dead for a few minutes which sucked, but then I kicked again, NDB.” That’s how some of those stories read to me. There are a few weird moments where Slash repeats or contradicts himself (saying he doesn’t “remember exactly” what was said, and then not five words later claiming “but I’ll never forget” what was said. Huh? Maybe co-writer Anthony Bozza dropped the ball on that, or the editors).

Slash is personable and down-to-earth, considering his fantastic journey and rock n’ roll lifestyle. Slash was a fun book that was compulsively readable. The chapters are lengthy, but the sections in each chapter are not, making it easy to pick up and read a bit here and there easily. Any fan of Slash, GNR, old-school rock, or rock music biographies and memoirs would enjoy Slash. Of course, Slash has accomplished a lot since its publication (2007), and continues to write, record, and tour. Despite my wanting a little more depth in general, in the end, I felt like I was hanging out with Slash and he was telling me his stories from life and the road, which is just what you expect from a rock memoir. It was an awesome warm-up to get me pumped for the concert last month!

Read from October 1 to 31, 2015.

between the world and me

I know I’m super late on writing this one, but I don’t feel right just skipping it because it’s one of the best books I read this year. From Goodreads:

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son.

I was so moved by this book; I was brought to tears more than once. Coates tackles this brutal, urgent topic that effects us all in a poetic, even-keeled manner. I felt the heaviness of his heart and worry for his son’s future as I read. There are no answers or solutions presented here, just Coates’s interpretation of the American Dream, and that self-assessment, education, solidarity, and awareness are the ways to survive.

I’ll admit that I’m jaded some from my reality after graduating from college, but I’m also fully aware of my white privilege and that I’m living easy street compared to countless others. I was taught that if I work hard and “do all the right things” I’ll have a well-paying job out of college and a comfortable life. I’ll inherit the world, not just grow up in it. Young black Americans are given a very different message, rooted in fear and struggle and survival.

One of Coates’s most jarring (and now that I’ve read it and been made aware, accurate) assertions is that violence to black bodies is American tradition inherent. It’s a part of the system and designed by it, not a failure of the system. Why does it persist, if we’ve supposedly evolved as a society, right? Well, that’s a thought out of white privilege. Parents of black children live in fear everyday in a way that parents of white children need not—their children can be brutalized, jailed, and killed over the tiniest (or non-existent) offense.

Between the World and Me ranks right up there with Claudine Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for me as far as urgency and potency. This is necessary reading for these times.

Read from September 7 to 10, 2015.

the long walk

I can’t remember when I picked up The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)… it was a gift for my husband a while ago. He recently read it and asked me to read it so we could talk about it. Book club! 🙂 From Goodreads:

Every year, on the first day of May, one hundred teenage boys meet for an event known throughout the country as “The Long Walk.” Among this year’s chosen crop is sixteen-year-old Ray Garraty. He knows the rules: that warnings are issued if you fall under speed, stumble, sit down. That after three warnings… you get your ticket. And what happens then serves as a chilling reminder that there can be only one winner in the Walk—the one that survives…

What I thought would be a typical teen dystopia in the vein of The Hunger Games (never read, seen the movies) turned out to be something else entirely. Participation in the Long Walk is voluntary, and for much of the book that bothered me. I thought that it should be mandatory, a lottery or something (like in Hunger Games) but THEN I thought, no. This must be voluntary. Boys selected for the Long Walk against their will would protest—they’d flee the country and go into hiding, anything to get out of it. Citizens would be in an uproar (think the Vietnam draft… and that was for a war! This is just for “The Prize” at the end, anything the winner wants for the rest of his life). Oohh… is this book an allegory for military service?? Anyway, brilliant.

King makes subtle statements on adolescent masculinity in our culture, which I’ve noticed in other books of his. But in The Long Walk, it might be the first King book I’ve read without any supernatural elements. This makes the idea of a military state in the (near?) future, where we’d cheer 100 boys literally walking to their deaths frighteningly plausible. In The Long Walk, much of the “action” is cerebral—the internal dialogue and philosophical musings of Ray, mostly. But King is so talented at character development, he manages to keep a the repetitive, singular activity of walking compelling for almost 400 pages. Also in this one, there are no subplots or intersecting storylines. It’s just the Walk, from start to finish. There’s intense, relentless focus on the boys’ horrifying physical and mental breakdowns after hours and miles of walking without rest.

The Long Walk came out in 1979, but it still has many points relevant to today’s American culture—some shockingly so. I was especially struck by how similar the feel of the Long Walk event is to reality competition shows, in that people voluntarily put themselves in the spotlight competing to win (whatever), usually at their own or others’ expense (dignity), risk, and suffering. And how society is addicted to this kind of sick voyeurism.

Awesome book, I loved it! If you’re looking for a psychological thriller with some elements of horror and dystopia that will keep you thinking about it long after, check out The Long Walk. It would be a great warm-up for Halloween!

Read from August 23 to September 3, 2015.