HOW TO WALK AWAY by Katherine Center

Vacation read #2 was How To Walk Away by Katherine Center. I’ve read some of Center’s earlier books and they are dependably readable and compelling, if a bit on the lighter side. When How To Walk Away opens, Margaret, a woman in her late twenties, is reluctantly boarding a private plane with her boyfriend, who has just learned to fly. While up in the air, they get engaged, and Margaret sees her perfect future ahead of her: dream job, dream guy, dream marriage. Then they hit an unexpected storm and he crash lands the plane, leaving Margaret paralyzed from the knees down and with third degree burns on her face and body. When she wakes up in the hospital after several surgeries, her life is completely different.

As I mentioned, Center’s books are generally light reading, and even though How To Walk Away deals with a serious topic, it was no exception. Margaret’s fiance turns out to be a selfish, terrible person, and he abandons her soon after the accident. She then faces a long recovery ahead, which she must go through without her partner at her side. But she soon develops a crush on her physical therapist, and it’s probably no surprise that they end up getting involved, despite facing several hurdles. I thought that Center’s depiction of Margaret’s spinal injury and recovery was pretty realistic – she clearly did her research – and to me that was the most compelling part of the book. I liked that Margaret wasn’t perfect and that she dealt with her injury in a pretty relatable way. Some subplots involving Margaret’s family were simplistic and a bit outlandish, but overall this was a satisfying vacation read. If you’re looking for a good beach book, give How To Walk Away a try.

 

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam

I made it through 7 books on vacation! That’s a lot for me. I crammed in reading the whole time I was gone, waking up early to read and spending a lot of time poolside. To me, 7 books is the sign of a successful vacation.

Vacation Read #1 was That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam. This is my August book club pick and one that I bought  this spring (rare for me) before picking it up at Book Expo (of course!).

Rebecca is a new mother living in Washington DC in the 80s. She has just had her first child, and breastfeeding is proving to be a challenge. Rescue takes the form of Priscilla, a lactation consultant working at the hospital to help new mothers. Priscilla’s calm presence and patient guidance helps Rebecca through the murky early days of motherhood, and when Rebecca decides she wants to hire a nanny to free up her days so that she can resume her writing career, she persuades Priscilla to quit her job and come work for her.

The two women settle into an easy, comfortable relationship – almost a friendship, but a bit more complicated. Rebecca, white, is an open book. But Priscilla, African-American, always remains a bit of a mystery. When Priscilla – already the mother of a grown daughter, tells Rebecca that she’s pregnant, her employer is surprised but promises to make it work. And when Priscilla then dies in childbirth – having given birth right a few weeks before her own daughter has her first child – Rebecca decides takes the baby home and ultimately adopts him.

That Kind of Mother is about parenthood and the many ways having children impacts lives and relationships. The author, himself the father of two adopted boys of a different race, explores what it’s like to be white and parent a black child. Rebecca has to contend with her feelings of sadness about Priscilla’s death, her loyalty to her husband, the competing needs of her two sons, and the responsibility she feels to Priscilla’s daughter and her family. Rebecca is unrealistically clueless about the realities of being black – and in particular a black man – and is shocked by the injustice she is warned that her son may experience. Overall, she means well and through her, Alam empathetically depicts the complexities of motherhood. But in the end she turns out to be pretty selfish and rather naive. And I am not sure that the underlying friendship between Priscilla and Rebecca is convincing enough to merit Rebecca’s commitment to Priscilla’s son.

This was the first book I read on vacation and I am struggling to remember the details – not a great sign. It was a pleasant enough read but it left little impact on me. The treatment of race was pretty shallow in the end, and didn’t add much to what is  currently a pretty robust debate.

Maybe my book club discussion in a few weeks will awaken my memories, but for now this book was just OK for me.

Vacation Reading Status

I have finished two books so far on vacation and am about 2/3 the way through a third.

Almost done:

Done:

Still have almost a week to go so I hope to finish a few more. Reviews when I am back!

Vacation Books!

I am heading out on vacation tomorrow for about 10 days. Among many things, I am excited to get some reading done! Here is the pile of vacation books I am planning to bring with me. (Assuming they fit. They may not. Sigh.)

I am aiming for books that are going to be engrossing and keep my attention. They don’t have to be light, but I don’t want anything that’s a chore to get through. Hopefully this list will hit the mark.

A few other reading-related items:

  1. I went to the new Amazon Bookstore in downtown Bethesda, MD over the weekend. My impressions: it’s a fun place to browse, but it’s not a full-service bookstore. The inventory is too spare. According to this article in the Washington Business Journal, “Every book in the store is either a best-seller, new release or has an online rating of at least four stars. Curators consider books based on Amazon customer ratings, pre-orders, sales and popularity on social cataloging site Goodreads in making selections. The curators will also determine what gets on the shelves by looking at Kindle reading behavior — Amazon is a data company, after all — to let customers know where to find the real page turners.” So it’s a good place to get recommendations and discover new books based on other books you’ve liked. But you’re not going to have much luck looking for a specific book that isn’t on the best-seller list. If you’re a Prime member, you pay Prime prices. My office will soon be moving to Bethesda, but I doubt this will be a regular lunchtime destination for me.
  2. I have a winner from the June Is Audiobook Month giveaway! Congratulations to Pat Burke!

OK, I’ll be back to review vacation reads, either from the trip or when I get back.

HOW TO BE SAFE by Tom McAllister

How To Be Safe by Tom McAllister opens with a school shooting in a Pennsylvania town. The immediate suspect is Anna Crawford, a teacher at the school who has been suspended due to insubordination. Anna is quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, but her life is upended as the whole town deals with the aftermath of the shooting.

Anna becomes reclusive, withdrawing from interactions with the rest of the town and turning more and more fearful about the dangers of the world she lives in.  She has a boyfriend, but she’s unable to connect emotionally with him and seeks solace instead in fringe groups of religious apocalyptics and vigilante gun-rights activists hoping to enforce peace. McAllister intersperses the book with vignettes about the students and teachers killed in the massacre, as well as an opening chapter told through the eyes of the shooter himself. Meanwhile, Anna is brought further down by her sad family history, her depression and her inability to connect with anyone other than her brother.

I really wanted to like this book. McAllister is keenly observant and insightful, and there are many passages I marked throughout the book. Like this: “The politicians loved small towns. They thought all we did was sit around eating apple pie and waving flags in our churches. They didn’t like to think about everyone taking opiates and working bad jobs and living in a constant state of fear.”  Or this, about memorials to tragedies: “Each memorial represented a collective commitment not to remembering, but to whitewashing the memories, to creating a more palatable version of the memory for ourselves to hold on to and repeat and eventually accept as the truth. The memorials were there to hide failures, not to be critical of them.” Or this: “In America we send children to school to get shot and to learn algebra and physics and history and biology and literature. Less civilized nations don’t have such an organized system for murdering their children.”

In the end, though, How To Be Safe didn’t really work for me. It was more of a treatise about the awful reality of violence in our country than it was a novel with a character who developed – at all – over the course of 230 pages. There is so much anger in the book – justifiable, to be sure – that it turned into a blur of instructions about how to protect yourself, further spiraling by Anna and examples of violent acts spread around the country. I absorbed it breathlessly, but I can’t say I enjoyed it or really took much from it other than despair.

This is a buzzy book that others have enjoyed more than I did. Like I said, McAllister is brilliant and there are a lot of insights here (and some really good writing). It just didn’t work for me.

CAN’T HELP MYSELF by Meredith Goldstein

I am a sucker for advice columns. I read several on a regular basis – Carolyn Hax, Ask Amy, Dear Prudence – so when I learned that there was a book coming out by Boston Globe advice columnist Meredith Goldstein, author of the “Love Letters” column, I knew I wanted to check it out. (Goldstein also wrote the novel The Singles, which I reviewed here.)

Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions From A Modern Advice Columnist is about Goldstein’s column: how she started it, the types of letters she gets and her interactions with her readers. But it’s also about Goldstein’s own life – her relationships with men and the people close to her. The “Love Letters” column addresses her readers’ relationship quandaries, covering everything from one night stands and overdue marriage proposals to work spouses and online dating. Goldstein divides the book into themes about love lives while threading her own personal narrative throughout. We learn about the guy who got away, her very close relationship with a colleague, and her mom’s cancer diagnosis.

Can’t Help Myself is a quick and interesting read. Goldstein is funny and deeply honest, so I really got a sense of who she was. I almost always agreed with the advice she gave out to her readers, even while she had trouble following it in her own life. I do wish she had spent more time behind the scenes. I wanted to hear more about how she picked the letters and trends she has noticed in 9 years of writing her column. Goldstein always seemed so sure of her answers; I’d like to have heard about the times when she just didn’t know what to advise. More focus on the role and responsibility of the advice columnist would have given Can’t Help Myself more heft.

I liked the reader letters spread throughout the book, and have, of course, now subscribed to “Love Letters” updates.

This is a fun book if you’re an advice column junkie, but in the end I wanted a little more detail and analysis.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal (A Reread)

In the 12-year history of EDIWTB, I have never re-read a book.  There are just too many books out there that I want to read – why would I spend precious time repeating one?

Until now.

I was flailing around for an audiobook last month, and I found Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal on audio on Overdrive. I’ve always been interested to see if it holds up to my very positive memory from last January (here’s my original review), and since I recommend it to everyone I know, I wanted to be sure that I still felt as strongly about it now.

The short answer is: I do. It’s still my favorite book in recent memory.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest follows Eva Thorvald, a girl who is born in St. Paul, Minnesota to Lars, a chef with an extremely sophisticated palate. Her mother abandoned the family when Eva was only a few months old, and her father died suddenly a few weeks later. Eva was adopted by her aunt and uncle, and the book checks in on her life every few years as she grows up and turns into a world-renowned chef. Each chapter involves Eva in some way – sometimes she’s the main character, and sometimes she’s only mentioned in passing. There is an ingredient featured in chapter too, and in the end, they all come together in a very creative way. It’s almost like a book of linked stories, with themes of food, family and loss threaded through each one.

I always find Kitchens (as I call it) a tough book to describe. There is lots of sadness in the book, but Stradal also has a sharp sense of humor and deep empathy for his characters. His writing is restrained and quiet, which always left me wanting more (in a good way). Almost every word uttered by every character in the book seemed totally realistic – you could just imagine the conversations playing out in front of you. There are so many memorable scenes, each full of detail and emotion, yet also understated and not showy at all. Stradal is my favorite kind of writer – he never underestimates his readers and he doesn’t shy away from tough stuff.

And the audio! It’s perfect. Amy Ryan and Michael Struhlbarg effortlessly transform themselves into Stradal’s motley crew of characters, from poor Lars to angry Braque and hapless Dan, a bit player who made a big impact on me thanks to Struhlbarg’s narration. The audio is amazing – this was my second time listening to the book on audio (both times I also read some chapters in print – I literally can’t put this book down) and again it didn’t disappoint.

OK, if you haven’t read this book yet, what are you waiting for? It’s just that good.