Saturday, May 31, 2014

Remember Me Like This

Remember Me Like This has, for some reason, the feel of a thriller. Maybe it’s the pace of the writing or the fact that I didn’t want put it down (I read it in two sittings). But, it’s not a really a thriller and it certainly isn’t a typical guilty pleasure that we sometimes look forward to blowing through over a weekend and then promptly forget about the next day. No, Bret Anthony Johnston has written a beautiful, pitch perfect novel that will stay with you for a long time.

Four years after Justin’s disappearance from a small Texas town he is reunited with his family. There have been plenty of books written about this topic but they usually stop here where the family is reunited, the book is tied up neatly with a clear happy ending.  But Remember Me Like This essentially begins with the return of a 16 year old boy to his family. Johnson takes us beyond that typical happy ending and we see that this is only the beginning for this family. Complicating matters(and this is not a spoiler), Justin has been living only miles away the entire four years, a fact that haunts not only his parents but Justin as well. 

I loved this book because it never really takes the easy way out and  the author respects the reader enough to know we don't need everything spelled out for us, and like life, the endings aren't tidy. I highly recommend this for your book group. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Painter by Peter Heller

I was a big fan of Peter Heller's first novel, The Dog Stars. Heller, who has written nonfiction for National Geographic, added poetic language and first rate nature writing to a story about survival and human connection in a post-apocalyptic world. Thus, I had high expectations going into reading Heller's new novel, The Painter.  I wasn't disappointed.

The Painter contains many of the elements found in The Dog Stars; Heller's outstanding grasp of the natural world distinguishes him from many of the other literary fiction writers out there, and his characters are sharp. Once again his main character is a man haunted by the past. However, this new novel doesn't delve into the end of the world and it reads like a literary thriller. The Painter tells the story of Jim Stegner, a man with a violent past (he killed a man) who channels his darkness into his art. He's gained some prestige in painting the Southwest and lives a quiet life of painting and fly-fishing, where Heller's great nature writing again sparkles. When Jim witnesses an act of brutality, though, he's again trapped in a world of violence and retribution.
Peter Heller

Here's the story of a moral man fighting against his own darkness and that of the world around him. In that sense, a man vs nature and man vs man sense, The Painter feels like an old school novel of simply great storytelling that revolves around classic themes. I really like this approach. I sometimes get tired by tongue-in-cheek writing and cleverness and authorial irony. Peter Heller doesn't need to rely on these tricks. Here's a novel with a strong character, a compelling plot, and beautiful writing. What more do you need?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

It's time for another installment of Damn, Lizzie Loves the Canadians. The latest addition to the "Oh, Canon-da!" reading list is The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. Love big epic novels with plenty of action? Love great characters who seem like real people? Love historical fiction that doesn't get lost in the details? Love moments of humanity and brutality and not being able to guess where a book is going? Love The Orenda.

Author Joseph Boyden.
The "orenda" is the spirit that connects all things in the world, from people to animals to trees, and in Boyden's novel, all things are connected even when they come from different worlds. Set in the 17th Century, the book begins with a Jesuit missionary, Christophe, running for his life. He has swallowed his fears and set off to find the "sauvages" and convert them to Christianity, but he is walking into the middle of a war. In colonial North America, French are fighting English and Huron are fighting Iroquois, and natives are fighting colonists. The world is full of mistrust and danger. Christophe's guides abandon him when they believe that the Iroquois are tracking them, and when he's convinced he will quickly and violently die. A Huron warrior named Bird, a leader of his tribe, finds Christophe and takes him prisoner. Along with the missionary, Bird takes an Iroquois girl named Snow Falls, whose family he has just killed. Snow Falls will become Bird's daughter, and all three will travel together and settle into the Huron village.
Look closely--the cover looks and feels like
birch bark. It's a really nice effect and a
gorgeous jacket (and book).

The Orenda is told from the alternating perspectives of these three characters, each adding insights into their surroundings and the other characters. This is a violent world--as one might imagine, Snow Falls is not thrilled to become the daughter of the guy who slaughtered her family, and well, Bird didn't need that pinky finger, right? Christophe is a mystery and his ways are bizarre to the villagers; they call him "the crow" because of his black missionary attire. Joseph Boyden's book, though, is also full of moments of appreciation for natural beauty and a deep affection for these characters and the others in the village. Bird worries about the changing world as he assumes more responsibility for his people. This is a multi-layered, rich novel that sucks in the reader, and Joseph Boyden is a first rate novelist who's won major awards. Could this novel win the Pulitzer or Booker? Absolutely.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

I have not been shy in professing my love for Colson Whitehead. I may have mentioned our one-sided love here and here, and he might be the reason I've rejected (thus far) all the convicts Gianna has suggested for dates. Whitehead is a genius novelist--see: The Intuitionist, John Henry Days (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and Zone One--and one of the reasons I love his writing is that he manages to inject satirical humor into the direst situations. Trapped on an island with zombies? Nerds will know that naming the main character Mark Spitz is pretty perfect. So when my hubby beloved snuggle muffin pal Colson wrote a new book, of course I jumped all over it.
Colson Whitehead, I'm still
single. Call me?

The Noble Hustle is Colson Whitehead's nonfiction account of his journey into the world of sports. The ESPN website Grantland contacted Whitehead about writing a sports piece for their site, but the guy's a novelist; he doesn't play sports. He does, however, play poker. Since college, the author has been playing regularly with other authors--Nathan Englander--and creative types--film maker Darren Aronofsky--but he's never participated in professional tournaments. No problem. Grantland ponied up the $10,000 entrance fee and signed Colson up for the World Series of Poker.

Doubleday created cool posters
to promote the book.
"Anhedonia's native tongue has
fifty-seven words for sad."
I love this book.
On top of the poker tournament, the author's life is also in turmoil. He's recently divorced and between books. He's worried about his relationship with his daughter. Also, Whitehead claims to suffer from anhedonia, the psychological condition characterized by an inability to find pleasure in things most people find enjoyable. See where this is going? It's a fish out of water story told by a genius satirist with a knack for self-deprecation. First line of the book: "I have a good poker face because I'm half dead inside." Tell me more, dear Colson.

Because The Noble Hustle is ostensibly a sports book, Whitehead begins a strict training regiment. He...hires consultants specializing in yoga and meditation to help him focus while sitting for twelve hours. He practices sitting. He finds a poker coach--a middle aged, middle class woman who could have passed as a school teacher. He obsesses over being the first person eliminated from the World Series of Poker. He dons the proper attire. Most of the professional poker players wear corporate-sponsored garb; Whitehead creates a "Republic of Anhedonia" hoodie and is sponsored by a bookstore.
Whitehead at the WSOP,
ready for battle.

As the reader follows Whitehead's journey--what he calls "Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins"--insights into the culture, game, and idiosyncrasies of this subculture are illuminated. Vegas, baby. And beef jerky, since Jack Link's Beef Jerky sponsors the event. The online world of poker. The weird characters. The intensity of the games. The tells. The chips. The tournaments.

Yeah, this is a book about poker, but you don't need to be a poker player (I'm not) to love it. Here's a book that's both top-level participatory journalism and discovery memoir, but nothing is taken too seriously. It's genius and a ton of fun.