Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: Us

A few years ago, on a Anne Hathaway tear, I watched every single one of her movies. I’m talking Princess Diaries 2, Ella Enchanted, Rachel Getting Married, you name it. In the process I watched a movie I hadn’t heard of before, One Day. I loved it. It was so sweet, and perfect, and sad, and just wonderful. If you haven’t seen it, add it to your queue. Then I learned it was based on a book of the same name by David Nicholls. He just came out with another book, Us, and I jumped at the chance to review it.

Douglas Petersen may be mild-mannered, but behind his reserve lies a sense of humor that, against all odds, seduces beautiful Connie into a second date . . . and eventually into marriage. Now, almost three decades after their relationship first blossomed in London, they live more or less happily in the suburbs with their moody seventeen year-old son, Albie. Then Connie tells him she thinks she wants a divorce.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Hoping to encourage her son’s artistic interests, Connie has planned a month-long tour of European capitals, a chance to experience the world’s greatest works of art as a family, and she can’t bring herself to cancel. And maybe going ahead with the original plan is for the best anyway? Douglas is privately convinced that this landmark trip will rekindle the romance in the marriage, and might even help him to bond with Albie.

Narrated from Douglas’s endearingly honest, slyly witty, and at times achingly optimistic point of view, Us is the story of a man trying to rescue his relationship with the woman he loves, and learning how to get closer to a son who’s always felt like a stranger. Us is a moving meditation on the demands of marriage and parenthood, the regrets of abandoning youth for middle age, and the intricate relationship between the heart and the head. And in David Nicholls’s gifted hands, Douglas’s odyssey brings Europe—from the streets of Amsterdam to the famed museums of Paris, from the caf├ęs of Venice to the beaches of Barcelona—to vivid life just as he experiences a powerful awakening of his own. Will this summer be his last as a husband, or the moment when he turns his marriage, and maybe even his whole life, around?

The book, which was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, was a treat to read. Douglas, the 54-year-old narrator, seems both very British and very much a scientist, and describes his life, his relationship with his wife, and the events that unfold when she tells him, just before they depart for their month-long trip, that she thinks their marriage may be over. He is completely taken by surprise by this news, as is the reader, until through snippets and recollections of their marriage, you can see where they fell away from each other. Douglas, ever the scientist, is careful and measured and logical. He likes to get to the airport two hours early while Connie is passionate and dramatic and fiery. You almost wonder how Douglas convinced her to marry him and give up her painting to have a family.

One thing I wasn’t completely convinced of was the portrayal of Connie. This could have been because male writers sometimes have trouble portraying females in a believable way, or it could have been because through Douglas’ eyes, the reader does not see all of Connie because Douglas does not see all of Connie, which is part of her issue with him and the state of their marriage. Because I liked the rest of the book so much, I’m willing to take the more forgiving explanation.

Despite the surprising (to Douglas) news that Connie wants to leave him, they embark on the planned grand tour of Europe with their 17-year-old college-bound son Albie. I’d say that hilarity ensues, but that would trivialize how great the resulting events and their repercussions are portrayed. Even when he’s not trying to be funny (which he usually is not), Douglas has that dry, British way about him that I find hilarious. That, paired with several amusing or compromising situations (one including a run-in with a prostitute), make for a surprisingly upbeat story line.

I haven’t read One Day (yet...believe me, it’s on my library request list) so I can’t speak to the claims that it’s better than Us, but I thought this book was a real treat and deserves all the praise it’s garnering and more. Run, don’t walk to pick up this book. And in case you need more convincing, check out the book trailer too.

Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Review: Man V Nature

It's no secret that I have a hard time with short story collections (too short! I want every single one to be book length!), but I relish the chance to read and review them all the same. It's taken me a while, but I've come to appreciate short story collections as much as other fiction, although for some reason I still don't read them as often. I'm trying to rectify this situation one book at a time, most recently with Man V. Nature by Diane Cook.

Told with perfect rhythm and unyielding brutality, these stories expose unsuspecting men and women to the realities of nature, the primal instincts of man, and the dark humor and heartbreak of our struggle to not only thrive, but survive. In “Girl on Girl,” a high school freshman goes to disturbing lengths to help an old friend. An insatiable temptress pursues the one man she can’t have in “Meteorologist Dave Santana.” And in the title story, a long-fraught friendship comes undone when three buddies get impossibly lost on a lake it is impossible to get lost on. Below the quotidian surface of Diane Cook’s worlds lurks an unexpected surreality that reveals our most curious, troubling, and bewildering behavior.

Other stories explore situations pulled directly from the wild, imposing on human lives the danger, tension, and precariousness of the natural world: a pack of “not-needed” boys takes refuge in a murky forest where they compete against one another for their next meal; an alpha male is pursued through city streets by murderous rivals and desirous women; helpless newborns are snatched from their suburban yards by a man who stalks them. Through these characters Cook asks: What is at the root of our most heartless, selfish impulses? Why are people drawn together in such messy, needful ways? When the unexpected intrudes upon the routine, what do we discover about ourselves?

As entertaining as it is dangerous, this accomplished collection explores the boundary between the wild and the civilized, where nature acts as a catalyst for human drama and lays bare our vulnerabilities, fears, and desires.

First of all, this description does not do the stories justice. The titles and blurbs make you think you're getting a run of the mill story about, for example, high school bullying (Girl on Girl). Then as you read the story you realize much, much more is going on, and how twisted and multi-layered the story is. I won't spoil it for you except to say there's a twist. It would be hard for me to choose a favorite short story in the collection, but if I had to it would definitely be "Moving On." In the first couple lines you think it's just a story about a woman whose husband has recently passed away, and then you quickly realize that she does not live in the same society that we do, but rather some futuristic, dystopian society in which women are assigned to men without any say in the relationship. It reminded me a lot of the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Many of the stories had a post apocalyptic quality to them, and contained a few key details that made you realize that although the characters and their settings seemed at first glance like normal 21st century stuff, they were actually different in crucial small ways. The fun part was that you then got to spend the rest of the story wondering what the background was, and why the characters and the world they lived in were the way they were. It was like reading a book about the future written in the past (think 1984 or Slaughterhouse Five).  Each story also definitely leave you wanting to read more, which would probably be my only gripe about the book. Other than that, it's a definite must-read.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Six Years Since

On this date six years ago, D and I went on our first date. We've been together ever since.

We've traveled the world together, from a long weekend in Paris to a 3-week honeymoon in Morocco. We've been to France, Spain, Italy, Nicaragua, Canada, and Puerto Rico together, and a couple dozen domestic cities as well.

We've lived in two cities in the past six years, and three different apartments over the four years since we moved in together. We have shared three addresses, five leases, and two bank accounts so far.

I finished graduate school, and he started it. We've both changed employers, quit jobs, and begun new careers.

We've scrimped, saved, and paid off an enormous amount of undergraduate and graduate student loan debt. We've sold the car he had when I met him and now together own a newer one. We've gotten new drivers licences twice and voter registration cards four times. We've voted in two presidential elections and two midterm elections since we met.

We have bought a staggering number of airline tickets, for trips together and separate, for work, play, and journeys that encompassed both. We've taken trips by car, bus, and train.

We have run two half marathons, one full marathon, and an incomprehensible number of training run miles together over the last six years. We've bought two bicycles and cycled in three different countries.

 And sometimes, somehow, it feels like we've only just begun.