Category Archives: Contemporary

I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb

Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Length: 912 pages

The reason I picked up this book wasn’t because of Oprah’s Book Club Recommendation. The last book Oprah recommended that I remember was Stephen Frey’s Million Little Pieces, and, well, we all remember how that one turned out. I do think that whole hoopla was interesting for other reasons, but that’s probably best left for another post.

Anyway, I borrowed this from the library. I don’t know what made me pull it from the stacks of other books but I read the blurb and was instantly sold. I checked it out and what followed was two weeks of reading interspersed with bouts of the most intense (I kid, but not really) crying.

Yes, it’s a very emotionally-charged book because you just cannot help but sympathize with the character. Instead of giving a synopsis, an excerpt is probably better to showcase the book’s strengths. A synopsis runs the risk of many rolling eyes because, if you’re like me, synopses that tell you This book pulls my heartstrings so much that I could not put it down! or I felt so much for this character and I am so moved by this book! will have the reverse effect and you will end up running away from it rather than picking it up; that’s adverse to what I’m trying to do here. By the way, Wally Lamb, if you’re reading this? You’re welcome. (Still kidding. I’m not this arrogant.)

Simply put though, this book is about a 40-year-old man, Dominick Birdsey, coming to terms with his life. The catalyst for his trip down memory lane is his schizophrenic twin brother Thomas, who, believing that he is instructed by God to make a stand against the Gulf War in 1991, cut off his hand in a public library.

Excerpt:
This one is excellent because it sums up the themes of the book nicely and showcases Dominick’s guilt prominently:

When you’re the sane brother of a schizophrenic identical twin, the tricky thing about saving yourself is the blood it leaves on your hands — the little inconvenience of the look-alike corpse at your feet. And if you’re into both survival of the fittest and being your brother’s keeper — if you’ve promised your dying mother — then say so long to sleep and hello to the middle of the night. Grab a book or a beer. Get used to Letterman’s gap-toothed smile of the absurd, or the view of the bedroom ceiling, or the indifference of random selection. Take it from a godless insomniac. Take it from the uncrazy twin — the guy who beat the biochemical rap.

What I like here is Dominick’s voice and the terms he uses to describe his situation, for example, the second clause of that first line: [t]he tricky thing about saving yourself is the blood it leaves on your hands.” The blood he invokes of course refers to the blood on his brother’s hands, actual blood spilled from Thomas’ stance. But Dominick sees himself as also having blood on his hands. The blood he spills because he is the sane one. What does that mean? Why does he think that being the sane brother means that he, too, has blood on his hands? He obviously feels responsible, as only people who refer to having blood on their hands would. But why?

He answers himself by mentioning that he is both “into” the survival of the fittest and being his brother’s keeper, but the trade-off is he became a godless insomniac. He is uncrazy, he beat the biochemical rap, but he still has blood on his hands, same as his brother. But why? Simple answer is survivor’s guilt. He escaped, but at the same time he didn’t. And what I found interesting is the theory he posed that survival of the fittest and being his brother’s keeper do not go together. Again, this screams big themes. If we bring it out of context, there are literally thousands of questions connected to this. If you want to win in the game of life, does it really mean that you cannot be kind to others (this case being his own brother)?

The phrase godless insomniac also jumped out at me. He is literally a godless insomniac. He does not believe in god and he often cannot sleep. But there’s something poetic with the phrase godless insomniac, don’t you think? To be godless is to believe that you are alone. To be an insomniac means…oh I don’t know, that you cannot escape from your problems, maybe? You can’t even shut off the day’s stresses. You’re always up, you’re tired, but you can’t rest, you can’t escape from what’s in front of you. What a lonely image. A man in his 40s who is alone and can’t rest, can’t turn off the burdens he carries. A figure like Atlas, one man carrying the whole world.

And the most interesting (to me) is this phrase: “…the little inconvenience of the look-alike corpse at your feet.” I’ll let you make your own judgments on that one.

But of course, as I was reading, these things didn’t occur to me. What I felt when I read that paragraph was the beautiful phrasing even though the words describe a melancholy and lonely situation. I felt enveloped in this man’s sad, sad situation.

To complement what I have here, I have a longer excerpt (if it’s long enough, does an excerpt become an extract?) that should give you a fuller picture of what the book has to offer. I won’t dissect it, don’t worry. I wouldn’t want you staying up all night reading a treatise. I’m putting it behind the jump because it’s long but if anything I said previously interested you, please do read it. I’ll gamble that you’ll like it.

And again, I must warn you, this extract contains massive spoilers!

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Rating: 3/5 stars
Length:
588 pages
Synopsis:
I didn’t pick this book up on my own. I got it for my boyfriend and after he read it, he recommended that I give it a try.

The story is simple, Shadow is leaving prison after doing three years time due to a crime that wasn’t made clear until very far in the book. He learns, however, that his wife died in a car accident just as he is leaving. Then when he was on his flight back home, he meets Mr. Wednesday, who is intent on recruiting him for a job. His name, of course, isn’t Wednesday. Shadow isn’t keen on it but Wednesday is persistent and eventually Shadow relents. What follows is a kind of weird, but interesting adventure. The “weird” factor is just its fantastical elements, though.

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The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Rating: 5/5 stars
Length: 496 pages
Synopsis:

I don’t remember how I picked up this book, but I’m glad I did. The House at Riverton is told through the eyes of 98-year-old Grace Bradley, looking back through her memories of being the house servant at Riverton Manor for the Ashbury family in 1914. The book covers the time when society changed from a Victorian perspective, where duty comes before everything else, to the roaring ’20s’ indulgence and excess.

19-year-old Grace enters the Manor grateful for having been given the honor to serve the family, but as she serves, she begins to learn what that means, including keeping the family’s secrets, working without complaints, and giving up independent thoughts. She sees, but not allowed to say; observes, but cannot judge. In this capacity, she is an honest chronicler of what happens with the Ashbury family. What society knows and what she knows differ, and she is bound by the code of servitude to never reveal. She carries their stories until her dying age, when she is forced to revisit the Manor by, but who else could it be, the media.

The media here isn’t portrayed negatively. A filmmaker came to research because she wants to find out the truth for a commemorative movie in-the-making that seeks to uncover Grace’s secrets. Can Grace let go of them after carrying them for so long? The world wants to know what happened to the Ashbury siblings, David, Hannah and Emmeline, especially to the sisters. They were close, up until a tragedy occurred at a society party in 1924, when a poet committed suicide and the sisters never spoke to each other again.

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Blankets by Craig Thompson

Rating: 4/5 stars because of the universal themes of coming of age and first love. The graphic novel format is a plus and adds to the perspective.
Length: 592 pages.
Synopsis:
This is a wonderful and funny book that I read earlier this year through the recommendation of Flashlight-worthy Books. The book is an illustrated novel, drawn in black and white and tells the story of the author’s relationship with his brother, his experiences in Christian youth camp and his first love. It’s hefty, coming at about 600 pages, but every page is worth it and once you’ve started, you won’t be able to put it down. The final read time for me must have been under 3 hours, max, since I breezed through it. You will too, once you get engrossed in the story.

What I like about this one is that it says a lot without clubbing you over the head with it. The author was coming to terms with his faith and what his religion says at a time when he was experiencing love for the first time. This theme isn’t new but the format of the book allows exploration of the topic without bogging you down with heavy descriptions and details. The graphic strips make you visualize the scenes, rather than imagine them, making you feel as if you’re witnessing the scenes happening (like a movie) without projecting yourself into the book and experiencing the scenes as if you are the author. This is a novel method because it makes the book pleasant overall, yet it can still make you feel that wrenching feeling when you sympathize with the characters at all the appropriate times.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Rating: 3/5 stars
Length: 600 pages
Synopsis:
I borrowed this from my boyfriend’s mom since I was curious about it. This book spawned two sequels and a movie so I don’t think a plot rehash is necessary, but for those who may not know, the story revolves around Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the tattoo. Blomkvist published a story against the head of a financial corporation and was sued for libel. He lost the case and was imprisoned. After his arrest, Henrik Vanger contacts him to investigate a mystery that Vanger was obsessed with. Salander joins Blomkvist in his work from an earlier report that she wrote on Blomkvist. She is an investigator, among other things. Continue reading


The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey

Rating: 2/5 stars for the solid writing, but somehow I couldn’t relate.

I just finished reading this book by Margot Livesey called The House on Fortune Street. What a depressing book. It had good prose, very readable but the subject at hand…so awful.

It tells the story of four people, each of whom had done a terrible thing and were dealing with what happens afterward. It talks about mendacity (a word I picked up from this book), euthanasia, infidelity, and pedophilia. What a sad bunch of words.

I don’t like it. The writing is good but what a downer of a book. I didn’t relate to any of these people and I did not feel anything for them, except for one character who suffered the most. Though I can’t believe her reasoning: why did she do what she did? I didn’t buy it. It’s true that all kinds of things happen to all kinds of people but I couldn’t put myself in her shoes. Not the fault of the author. I just couldn’t relate. There are rave reviews on Amazon (here) so that might put things into perspective if you’re trying to decide whether to read this.