Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hello from the Gillespies by Monica McInerney

The holiday season is not far away and so the flood of Christmas letters and Christmas cards will soon be upon us.  Have you ever read those Christmas letters and wondered how much of it resembled reality?  Well, in Hello from the Gillespies by Monica McInerney we learn what happens when someone actually tells the truth.  Angela Gillespie has been sending out her annual Christmas letter on December 1st since she first married over thirty years ago.  It has been a rough year and she is having a difficult time putting a positive spin on life.  Some impulse takes over and she begins typing what is really happening in her family:  Her husband has grown distant since their sheep station (like a ranch) began to fail, her daughters are struggling to come into adulthood and her ten-year-old is still holding on to his imaginary friend.  She doesn't mean to let all the details of their lives spill out, but she does.  She only meant to get it out of her head and then delete it all and start over until a family emergency keeps her from taking care of it and it accidentally gets sent out to over one hundred people on her mailing list.

I was cringing even as I was laughing about such an error, perhaps because it sounds like something I would do.  When I began this book, I thought it would be a funny book with a bit of family drama.  I was surprised when it took turns that took the reader much deeper into this family's lives and concerns.  The sheep station in rural Australia has been suffering for years due to drought.  The oldest daughters, twins, have moved far from home, one to Sydney and the other all the way to New York City.  The youngest daughter is struggling to find her place in the world and has bounced from one job to the next.  The young son has run away three times from the boarding school to which he has been sent.  And Angela is feeling lost in herself, in her mid-fifties and unsure about what is next for her.  When the family is all suddenly drawn back home, they are forced to face issues and work together.

I really enjoyed this book and I can't tell you how many times I laughed out loud.  The characters were all fully formed and wonderful.  I especially loved Angela's best friend Joan.  I would love to have a friend just like her.  And oh, how I'd love to hear all the stories Genevieve has to tell.  The descriptions of the setting had me looking at travel websites.  I would love to go.  Angela hosts guests on the station and that made me even consider leaving the beach!  This was a fun book to read without being too light.  I totally recommend you read this in place of all those phony letters with holiday borders you'll soon be getting in the mail.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sweet As Cane, Salty As Tears by Ken Wheaton

At fifty-years-old, Katherine is doing pretty well for herself in New York.  She has a successful job working for an advertising magazine, she has a sizable nest egg in the bank, and she spends her vacation time in far flung parts of the world seeing more than she ever imagined she could.  While not perfect, this is the life she has lived for the last thirty years since she sought refuge on a Greyhound bus headed as far from her country Cajun childhood as she could get.  When a family tragedy calls her back home, she has to face her past in a way she has studiously and pharmaceutically avoided for decades.

I had a good feeling about Sweet As Cane, Salty As Tears by Ken Wheaton when I read the Author's Note at the beginning of the book:  

A note about the word "yall."  While most consider y'all a contraction of you all, I consider it one word and treat it thusly.  Please indulge one person's crazy mission to change the language.

Having been born and raised in Texas, it mystifies me that the rest of the country doesn't take advantage of this wonderful word.  It is so concise.  It makes so much more sense that attempting to make the word "you" stand in for both the singular and the plural.  "You" is the singular, "Y'all" is the plural, and, if you really want to push it, "All y'all" is the multiple plural.  I have never, however, used "y'all" in the singular.  Some people do, but not me.  But back to Ken Wheaton and his use of this and other words and phrases that might need a little explanation.  On his blog, he provides a list that he refers to as "Talkin' Funny: Louisiana Style.  You can read those here and here.

As Katherine is pulled back into seeing her family- pulled because she dreads going- she must face her past mistakes and the tragedy that propelled her from home.  Raised with three sisters and two brothers, it is a large family to whom she is returning.  There are her siblings, their spouses and ex-spouses, as well as their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.  In a time and place where teen pregnancy was common, there are fewer years between the generations.  One complaint I had about the first half of this book was the difficulty I had keeping the sisters straight.  They are named Karla- Jean, Kendra-Sue, Katie-Lee (Katherine), and Karen-Anne.  This added to the overall feeling of the book, but it did take me a little while to remember who each one was.  Part of this confusion, especially when it comes to meeting all of the extended family, may have been intentional as Katherine herself has trouble remembering to whom each niece and nephew belong.

I enjoyed reading this book and it kept me turning the pages, but it was not a happy book to read.  There is a lot of sadness and dissatisfaction with life, but there is also the bond of family and it ends with hope.  And reading it left me with a craving for Popeye's chicken.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Man in the Window by Jon Cohen

The Man in the Window by Jon Cohen features a cast of characters all living in one small town with a monster.  Of course, Louis isn't really a monster, but some of his neighbors have begun to think of him that way.  As a teenager, Louis was terribly burned in a fire that caused his face to become unrecognizable.  His mother and father, Atlas and Grace have spent the last sixteen years caring for him, but Louis has become a recluse.  He is never without his hat and purple scarf even at home and he almost never leaves the house.  Iris, a nurse that will soon be meeting Louis, thinks of herself as a kind of monster.  What most people would likely interpret as unattractive she deems repulsive, but she refuses to let it stop her.  She is a successful nurse and she enjoys her work.  She is fairly new to town, having moved into her father's home to care for him after the passing of her mother and so knows nothing of the man in the window.

I was really excited about this book for the first several chapters.  I hadn't gotten very far into it before I started thinking about who on my Christmas list needed to receive their own copy.  The book begins with Atlas's death.  It happens rather early so I hope that isn't too much of a spoiler for you.   One of the first things I loved so much about this book was that Gracie refused to provide "appropriate" clothing to the funeral director for her husband.  Instead she insisted her husband be dressed in his favorite clothes- "a flannel work shirt, a pair of corduroys thin at the knees, gray cotton socks, and an old pair of Hush Puppies."  When pressed about it Gracie had this to say:  "My husband, I guarantee you, Mr. Rose, does not wish to travel through eternity in a necktie and a pair of shiny shoes pressing on his bunions."  I adore that this character would think of such a thing.  She loved her husband so much that she didn't want him to be uncomfortable, even in death.   Reflecting on their marriage, Gracie recalled the many times Atlas would tell her, "Gracie, I hope to God I go before you do."  He simply could not stand to live without her by his side.  Gracie's response was "Atlas, neither of us is going to go.  They make special allowances for people like us."  I love that.

The storytelling in the first half of the book had me fascinated, but it languished in the middle.  It became slow and lost much of it's spark.  It always makes me sad when a book doesn't turn out to be as good as I had hoped it would be.  Just near the end, it picked up pace and I was able to enjoy it again, but it never did get back to what it was in the beginning.