The First Warm Evening of the Year by Jamie M. Saul

The First Warm Evening of the YearEvery year, around this time, I’m drawn to books with titles and covers like The First Warm Evening of the Year. I always think that a story set in early summer is just what I need to get me through these last few weeks of winter. Unfortunately, I haven’t quite found the perfect book for this time of year and The First Warm Evening of the Year wasn’t the book I was expecting.

I should start off by saying that I could not finish The First Warm Evening of the Year. I give books, especially ones I’m reading for a tour like this one, a fair chance. I read 100 pages of this book and tried to get into the story and enjoy it, but I just couldn’t. I found the story to be unbelievable and the writing lacking, despite some wonderful descriptions and intrigue.

Geoffrey is a voice over actor who is surprised to find that he has been made the executor of his estranged best friend’s estate. They lost touch after she moved to Paris with her husband, but he graciously accepts the job and while going through Laura’s things he meets her good friend Marian. Marian is still in love with her husband, who died suddenly ten years ago, but has been in a long-term relationship. Geoffrey can’t stop thinking about Marian and the life Laura left behind.

When Geoffrey meets Laura, their conversation is intense, but when he starts talking about being passionately in love with her I was suddenly confused. He loves her? He only talked to her for a few minutes! I guess it was just so abrupt and bizarre. I thought this was going to be a meditative novel on grief, but it suddenly turned into the story of a man who pursues a woman who has expressly stated that she is totally uninterested in him.

I knew that there was a romance portion to the novel, but I wasn’t expecting it to take front and center and so quickly. While I was somewhat interested in seeing how their romance eventually played out, it also made me a little bit uncomfortable. Marian is a woman who is dealing with a lot of grief. After knowing her for approximately a week, Geoffrey goes to her house and tells her that a) he is in love with her, b) her long-term boyfriend is in love with her, but she will never be in love with him and c) they were meant to be together. I’m sorry, but if someone told me that after knowing me for a week? I would run in the other direction.

Apart from the romance being unbelievable, the first person narrative with long chunks of dialogue frustrated me. There are monologues that are two pages long in some cases and conversations that are nothing but sentence after sentence of dialogue for pages. I don’t expect written language to do anything but resemble speech, but I don’t want to be completely taken out of the story every time I read a conversation in the novel because it seems impossible.

There were moments that made me want to keep reading. Marian is a gardener and there is a scene where she describes the early summer garden to Geoffrey. I loved the descriptions and how passionate Marian was about her craft. I’m starved for spring and this was a perfect escape from the cold winter weather outside. I was also intrigued by how the story would play out, but unfortunately, not enough to overcome the negatives.

I wasn’t the reader for The First Warm Evening of the Year, but I know that what might be a deal breaker for me would be a mild annoyance to another reader. If you can suspend your disbelief about the romance, I think you might be very intrigued by the plot of The First Warm Evening of the Year and enjoy some wonderful descriptions of New York at spring time.

I received a copy of The First Warm Evening of the Year for review from TLC Book Tours. You can learn more about this tour, including other tour stops, here


Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan

Sometimes a book sneaks up on you, surpassing any expectation you might have had for that. Most recently for me, that book was Songs for the Missing. You might be wondering why I bothered to pick up a book that I didn’t even know or care much about, but isn’t that how this always works? Something made me pick it up. It has been lounging on my shelves, waiting quietly, for me to choose it.

Songs for the  Missing begins simply enough. Kim Larsen, during the summer after her senior year of high school, goes missing. This story is not about Kim, but about all who knew her and the repercussions her disappearance have on her life. This story is not about what happens, it’s not about simple actions; instead, it is a treatise on the family and the ties that keep them together and drive them apart.

Stewart O’Nan could probably write about anything, anything, and I would think it was amazing. It’s kind of like the way Julie Andrews could say anything and it would be lovely. He just has the kind of writing that I really respond to as a reader and as a writer. But beyond that, I truly did care for these characters. They felt so real and alive to me.

O’Nan smartly sets his book in 2005, far enough that it looks different from today, but still familiar. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I love current culture  in books that give it a place and a time. Sure, it can date a book, but it can also provide such a stronger sense of reality.

I can see why people don’t necessarily love this book. There isn’t much in terms of action and the characters aren’t exactly that likable, but I just couldn’t get enough of this. The writing, for me, was superb and the people in this novel so real that I just couldn’t stop reading. I found myself craving this book when I was doing other things.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Caribousmom, Devourer of Books, The Boston Bibliophile, Leafing Through Life, Booking Mama, books i done read, and Books on the Brain all have posts about Songs for the Missing. Do you? Let me know in the comments and I’ll link to it on this list.

Comic-A-Week – Jan 9-15 – Mother, Come Home

After Thomas’s mother dies, his father suffers from survivor guilt and depression.  He is hospitalized and this comic tells that story from Thomas’s eyes as a child.  I’ve read a lot of comics like this lately and I haven’t reviewed any of them because I so often find myself at a loss of words to describe anything about them.  Not how they made me feel or if I enjoyed reading them.

Honestly, I sometimes feel myself close off to comics like this.  The structure was so strange, it never allowed me to get involved in the story.  I wanted to care about Thomas and his father’s story, but I couldn’t. Overall, I thought the art here suited the mood perfectly, but the story was sometimes confusing, perhaps intentionally to illustrate grief and depression.  And the ending?  The ending was just strange when you compared it to the rest of the book, to be honest.

Though I didn’t want to talk about this because it’s unfair to compare, it’s really hard to ignore Chris Ware’s influences on Mother,  Come Home.  I just like Ware’s work much more.  They are different beasts in terms of storytelling – Ware’s most famous graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth is huge and this is a slim book that covers a tenth of that space.  All the same, if you are interested in the art, I’d recommend Chris Ware over this one.

In any case, if you are an avid reader of comics, Mother, Come  Home should be on your list to read.  But be prepared, it’s a difficult one and one that doesn’t ultimately live up to its promises.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Jenny’s Books also has a post about Mother, Come Home. Do you?  Leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it to this list.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by AS King

I read this one based on a recommendation from The Perpetual Page-Turner.  Jamie’s blog is new-to-me, but has already moved on up to my list of favorite blogs and bloggers.  Her taste is very interesting and eclectic, so when she started talking about Please Ignore Vera Dietz on Twitter and it made her top books of 2010 survey, I knew I had to read it.  Pair that with the fact that it was lounging on the library shelves, just waiting for me to pick it up, well, it was just meant to be!  Plus, her review of Please Ignore Vera Dietz is just so clever, I could never hope to top it.

Vera Dietz’s best friend Charlie has died.  But worse than that, right before he died, he did something to make her hate him.  As Vera says, “If you think your best friend dying is a bitch, try your best friend dying  after he screws you over.  It’s a bitch like no other” (7).   And that kind of frank language is just one reason to love Vera Dietz.  She’s honest and flawed, a perfect narrator for her imperfections.  Vera Dietz does not sugar coat or patronize and I loved it for it.

This is the kind of book you read in one sitting, because there is  a mystery, but also because the mystery is not the center of the novel.  I read Vera Dietz in one sitting because I loved the relationship between Vera and her father and the way it developed.  Like any relationship, it has its ups and downs, but is one based on love and respect.  It was such a healthy portrayal of a parent-child relationship, something that is unfortunately rare in novels.

I liked the different perspectives in the novel.  Though it is mostly told from Vera’s point of view, her father, Charlie and a community landmark (the Pagoda) all have their own parts of the novel to narrate.  And I know that sounds weird and at first I didn’t understand or like that the Pagoda was narrating sections, but looking back on it it was kind of funny.  And that’s what’s so remarkable about this book – it deals with incredibly heavy topics, but it is also humorous.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz reminded me a lot of Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee for a lot of reasons.  Though Say the Word deals with GLBT issues, both main characters are young women, unhinged by a recent death, who turn to alcohol to dull their sorrow.  Though I loved both novels, I loved Vera Dietz slightly more because it dealt with the alcohol and, as I have mentioned, the positive father-daughter relationship.   One of my biggest problems with Say the Word was that the main character drinks and drives and there are no consequences.  Beyond that, she doesn’t even think it’s wrong.  Here, the same thing happens, and even though Vera never truly gets in trouble for drinking and driving, she acknowledges that what she was doing was wrong and that is so important to me in a novel like this.

But above all, I loved Please Ignore Vera Dietz because of Vera Dietz.  She’s such a great narrator.  I mean, there’s a chapter, at the beginning of the novel, entitled, “You’re Wondering Where My Mother Is” that begins like this:

“My mother left us when I was twelve.  She found a man who was not as parsimonious as my father and they moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, which is two thousand five hundred miles away.  She doesn’t visit.  She doesn’t call.  She sends me a card on my birthday with fifty dollars in it, which my father nags me about until I finally go to the bank and deposit it.  And so, for all six years she’s been gone, I have $337 to show for having a mother.

Dad says that thirty-seven bucks is good interest.  He doesn’t see the irony in that.  He doesn’t see the word interest as anything not connected to money because he’s an accountant and to him, everything is a number.

I think $37 and no mother and not visits or phone calls is shitty interest.” (13)

See?  Heartbreaking and funny.  How is that even possible?  But King pulls it off.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Perpetual Page-Turner, Booking Mama, The Story Siren, Reviewer X, The Book Lady’s Blog,  Presenting Lenore, Sarah’s Random Musings all wrote posts on Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Did you?  Please leave your link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

A Common Pornography by Kevin Sampsell

A Common Pornography is a memoir, but one that breaks the mold of what a memoir should be.  Told in a series of vignettes, at the heart of the story is Sampsell’s relationship with his father, an angry and brutal man.  While stories of his father bookend the narrative of the memoir, what makes up the meat of this story is vignette after vignette of Sampsell relating memories from his adolescence and young adult.  They are not often connected, but underneath each story runs a current of trauma.

It’s true that Sampsell’s father was a despicable man, who does some absolutely horrible, unforgivable things.  But nothing is every so simple, no person is  truly evil, and Sampsell does not paint his father in a child’s unambiguous terms.  His father is the kind of man that can abuse his children, but lovingly bury a family pet with tears in his eyes.  Does Sampsell ever connect the ways in which he struggled, with finding direction and his relationships with women?  Not explicitly, but that is the suggestion.

If the title is any kind of hint, this memoir is not necessarily for the faint of heart.  Sampsell leaves no stone unturned, from tales of his first experiences with sex and pornography to drug use to the abuse he witnessed as a child.  The structure of this memoir serves the heavy topics well, because the reader never dwells for very long in a certain memory, and Sampsell’s pacing is perfect.  He keeps the tragedy of his life from outweighing the good memories, even in the structure of his memoir.

Here are just a few examples of the writing I loved so much in A Common Pornography:

“The next day, I called her and listened as she described to me what had happened.  I felt hollowed out and light-headed.  I pulled the suitcase out of the closet and locked my door as I heard her tell her side of things.  I wanted to interrupt her and tell her about the suitcase [of pornography], to make her jealous of the photos and how much I liked them.  About how fantasy was sometimes better than reality, which was how I wanted to feel when the heartache went away.” (120)

“I remember being really impressed about how the husband ran the family business with such an easygoing nature. He was always telling his wife that he loved her and called his son honey or sweetie.  It was the first time I heard a dad call his son names like that and it caught me off guard, especially because I thought the son would protest or be embarrassed.  But he wasn’t.  They were a close family.  Whenever I saw a family like that anywhere, I would watch them carefully, as if they were a rare species of animal.  I would want to go and join them.  Feel that unbreakable bond.

I remember thinking that if I had a son,  I would call him honey.” (172)

“Even though they were never affectionate with each other when I was growing up and in the twenty years since I left the Tri-Cities, I guess  they formed some kind of bond, or a truce that would keep them together forever.  Maybe it was formed out of mutual stubbornness, or perhaps they were used to each other, even though terrible things had happened between them.  Unforgiveable things.  But maybe the unforgivable things were forgivable after all, for the sake of not being alone.” (215)

In a lot of ways, though perhaps Sampsell has more sadnesses in his life than most, it is perfectly ordinary.  Sampsell’s story is not necessarily unique, but it is one that deserves to be told, and one I’m so glad I read.  Reflective and emotional, but also fragmented, I don’t think this is a memoir that will appeal to everyone.  But for me? I couldn’t stop reading it.

So go read this!:  now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Other reviews: Bermudiaonion, The Book Lady’s Blog.

Special thanks to Harper Perennial for sending me this book to review.

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

Sometimes I like to tell you the  story of how I came to read a book, because the story is so coincidental, and the book is so amazing, it’s as if divine intervention put the book in your hands.  You didn’t choose it, it chose you and there’s really not a whole lot you could have done about it.  Now, I requested Love is the Higher Law from the library, so I had some hand in it, but I never expected to read it the day I picked it up from the library, I never expected to read it one sitting, I never expected to love it.  I requested a random book from David Levithan simply because I know Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a join effort by Levithan and John Green, is out and I wanted to be at least a little familiar with Levithan.  I picked Love is the Higher Law, because I had seen a good review over at Bending Bookshelf and I had little interest in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.  Plus, Love is the Higher Law is an awesome title.  I only started reading it as soon as I got it because the library lost one of my holds and went searching for it.  So, what does a person like me do when they have to wait somewhere for a long time?  We read.

And I read.  And then I got in my car and all I wanted to do was keep reading.  Then I got home and I read and I read.  I cried a little.  And then I read some more until the book was over and all I wanted to do was keep talking about it.  Maybe I’m a sucker for books about September 11, but I can’t help it. 10 years later, I still want to tell you where I was and what I was doing.  And I still want to talk about how none of my sisters remember it at all because they are so young, and that, among everything else, will probably define where our generation ends and begins.  Because I remember what it was like before.

The point is that, not only do I want to tell you, but I want to hear it.  I want to hear where you were, and what you were doing and how this huge thing changed your life.  That’s what David Levithan does with Love is the Higher Law. Essentially, this book is about grief.  It’s about grief that’s bigger than one person, than one family, than one city.  It’s about a grief that holds over an entire country, but that each individual person feels acutely in some way, shape or form.  Yes, this book has plot and there are characters, but who the characters are doesn’t really matter, because it could be you or me or your next door neighbor.  The thing about grief is that it is the most universal and yet most individual feeling in the world.  Explaining what grief feels like seems impossible, it’s too much bigger than words.  Somehow, though, David Levithan manages to make this a story that’s even bigger that September 11 by the end.  This book is about 3 New York teenagers who are trying to sort through their feelings about what happened, while at the same time dealing with going away to college for the first time and trying to find love.

Claire, Jasper and Peter become friends through coincidences.  Claire and Peter are acquaintances at school, who are both at a friend’s party.  Jasper is there too, a friend of another friend.  Jasper and Peter have a flirtation that does not end well.  Jasper and Claire randomly meet each other again and have beautiful conversations.  They form an odd friendship, the three of them, but it is the best kind of friendship.  How it began is too coincidental, too strange to even seem real.

The narration switches from three main characters and I think out of all of them, Jasper was the strongest.  I would have liked more Claire and Peter, but Jasper really carried this book.  More than anything, I think the alternating voices give different perspective to the event itself.  Claire was at school, but ended up leaving to find her little brother.  They walked with the rest of the elementary school to a safer part of the city and her description of what that was like was absolutely terrifying.  Jasper was house sitting for his parents, who are visiting family in Korea, and slept through the whole thing.  Can you imagine going to sleep and waking up to find the entire world has changed?

If I could, I would quote this whole book to you.  But I will settle with this conversation:

She went on, “There’s the drown of things and the swim of things, I guess.  I’ve been going back and forth, back and forth.  I feel the weight of it. […]  Have you talked to people about this?”  Claire asked me.  “I mean, about what happened?  I’ve tried, but it never works.  I don’t know what I want from it, but I’m never satisfied.  I can’t talk to my mom about it.  And even my friends are strange to talk to, because they’re all caught up in their own versions, and every time I bring it up, they make it about them.”

I almost forgot she’d asked me a question.  Then she paused, and I said, “Oh.  Me?  I haven’t really talked to anyone….  I mean, what’s the point?”

This wasn’t really a question meant to be answered, but Claire looked out to the water and gave it a shot.

“I think the point is to realize you’re not alone.” (103)

I think everyone should read this book, because we’re not done talking about September 11th.  We’re going to have to explain to kids what it was and what it meant and how things were different before.  How will we do that?  How will I explain to my children where I was and what I was doing and how confusing and terrifying it was for a 12-year-old? There are no answers to those questions, I know that.  The readers who are the target audience for this book are kids like my sisters, they were there, but they probably don’t remember it too well.  This book will explain something, will explain the loss we all felt.  But they aren’t the only ones who should be reading it, so please, get out there, grab this book and read it.  It’s beautiful and heart breaking and one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

So go read this!:  NOW| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Also reviewed by: Mrs. Magoo Reads, Book Addiction, Reading Rants!, The Book Obsession, Read this Book!, She is too fond of books, Bending Bookshelf, The Reading Zone, Read What You Know.

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

What I was expecting with The Year of Magical Thinking was not what I got.  I was expecting a memoir, yes, but one that focused on something, well, magical.   I thought it was along the lines of The Happiness Project or other books.  Well, it isn’t.  Not at all.  Instead, The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s memoir of a year in her life when terrible things happen.  First her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, ill with pneumonia, is admitted into the hospital and goes into septic shock.  The question is not when she will wake up, it is if. One night after visiting their daughter, Joan and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, come home and John suffers from a heart attack and dies instantly at the kitchen table.

The memoir is both an account of what that year was like and also a study of grief.  It is, of course, a reflection of Didion’s personal grief, but she does not leave it at that.  The prose effortlessly weaves in and out of the present, memories and even the scientific.  Most of all, however, it is a tribute to John and their marriage together that never once falls prey to sentimentalism but instead remains heartbreakingly honest and beautiful.

Grief is a fascinating thing — it is something that we will all eventually experience in some capacity and it is one of those things that you simply cannot fathom until you have been there.  What I have thought most about since reading The Year of Magical Thinking is not necessarily anything that was said in the book, but instead the title.  The title confused me at first, but after reflecting on my own experiences with grief and after finishing the memoir, I think I understand a little bit better.   Magical does not necessarily mean wonderful, or fanciful, or perfect.  If anything reading fantasy should have taught me that.  It is “any art that invokes supernatural powers” (Princeton) or, my personal favorite, the “art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural” (  Magical thinking is an anthropological term that refers to the irrational way people think to stop the inevitable.  Grief is a natural way of thinking, as in it is a natural response  our minds have to tragedy, but it never feels that way.  It feels alien and foreign and, absolutely, supernatural.  It is a way to control ourselves.   Grief feels out of control, yet we have “stages of grief” that most people go through and mostly in order.  It is certainly a magical way of thinking.

Outside of the title, the other thing I have been thinking about, and the thing that touched me most about this book was once again not in the text at all, but rather the cover.  It is so subtle (though it is clearer online) that I didn’t notice it until after I had finished reading.  The letters of the title are black, but the letters J, O, H, & N are blue, spelling out her husbands name.  It’s absolutely beautiful.  I know it’s a small thing, but for me it really summed up this book perfectly.  Yes, this is about what it was like for Joan to grieve for her husband while caring for a sick daughter, but it is also a loving memorial to her husband, whom she clearly loved very much.

Favorite quote:

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.  We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.  We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks.  We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock.  We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.  We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss.  We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.  IN the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.”  A certain forward movement will prevail.  The worst days will be the earliest days.  We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place.  When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” to rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.  We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day?  We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue.  We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.  Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we  imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (188)

So go read this!: When you need it.  You might not find comfort in this book, but where I’m at in my life right now was perfect for reading this book.  You’re never beyond grief, but at this point I can look back at that time objectively and say, yes, I experienced that as well.

Also reviewed by: Shelf Love, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Book Awards Reading Challenge Blog, Care’s Online Book Club, Bookfoolery and Babble, Stephanie’s Written Word, The Written World.