State of the Union by Nick Hornby: Love on the rocks, Ain’t no surprise

State of the UnionState of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts

by Nick Hornby


Paperback, 132 pg.
Riverhead Books, 2019

Read: June 4, 2019

           [Louise says,] “Underneath it all, I love you.”

“Underneath it all.”

“Yes.”

“Great.”

“To be honest, I think you should be happy with that. You’re lucky there’s anything still there.”

Tom and Louise are in trouble — they’ve been married for years, have kids, and on the outside seem to be doing fine. But the marriage is in trouble — and it has been for awhile. Recent events have demonstrated just how bad the situation is, and Louise has talked Tom into counseling. Each week before their session, they meet in the pub across the street for a quick drink and to talk about what they’ll discuss in the upcoming session — also reacting to the previous session, what’s gone on in the week since, and discuss their future — if such exists.

Ten sessions. Ten very short chapters. More than 10 pints and glasses of white wine. 10 fantastic, intriguing, character revealing, entertaining conversations.

I guess I tipped my hand a bit there, didn’t I? It’s not much of a surprise that I loved this book because it’s written by Nick Hornby. And even when I’m not crazy about the novel in the end, there are few writers out there I enjoy reading as much as Hornby (alas, most of his novels predate this here blog, so you’ll have to take my word for it).

But it’s Hornby that takes what could be a maudlin exercise, a too-jokey experience, or an all-around failure and turns it into an experiment that’s successful, entertaining, and emotionally rich. I see Tom’s point of view, understand his pain and get his reluctance to do the work he needs to. I also understand Louise’s take, I get (don’t approve of, but get) her reaction to Tom, and appreciate her willingness to do the work (while seeing her own weaknesses — at least some of them). A lot of times in this kind of scenario, the reader will end up “taking the side” of one of the characters (frequently the one sharing their gender). But very quickly I noticed that I wasn’t rooting for Tom or Louise here, I was rooting for Tom and Louise.

But best of all? I loved reading their conversations — open, honest (an honesty borne from realizing they’ve got no choice at this point, what could would anything else do?) full of that love that’s “underneath it all” for both. And somehow, still entertaining for the reader.

I typically limit myself to one quotation from a book, but I there’s another I want to share to give a flavor for the way the book works on the mechanical level.

           “How are new starts possible?” Louise says. “When you’ve been together for a long time, and you have kids, and you’ve spent years and years being irritated by the other person? But if they stop being irritating, they’re not them anymore.”

“My text was me not being me.”

“Exactly.”

They walk to the door.

“So I’ve got to stay as me.”

“Yes.”

“While at the same time being different, somehow.”

“It’s a conundrum.”

One, count ’em, one dialogue tag. Five words of description. Which is pretty typical of the book (maybe a little heavy on the description). That’s practically nothing — and dialogue tags pretty much only show up after description so you know who’s starting the back and forth — it could easily be a page or more before the next one. It’s like Hornby’s version of an acoustic recording — a story stripped down to its essence. Maybe that’s not the best metaphor — it’s the literary equivalent of espresso, the bare minimum, concentrated. Ian Shane called it “a literary play.” I like that, too.

The minimalism makes this a deceptively quick and easy read — you start flying through the text, caught up in the conversation and then realize just what it was they’re being breezy about, just in time for a line that emphasizes just what’s at stake.

This was also a show on Showtime recently — ten 10-minute episodes, as I understand. I don’t know which came first — the show or the book. If it was the book, I don’t know that a script would really be necessary — just hand them this book and say “go.” And if it was the other way around, it’d be about the easiest adaptation from a script ever.

At the end of the day, this is exactly what you want from a Nick Hornby book (except the length — I wanted more, always): funny, heartfelt, charming, (seemingly) effortless, and makes you feel a wide range of emotions without feeling manipulated. I loved it, I think you will, too.

Note: I won a copy of this from Riverhead Books via Goodreads — and I thank them both for that. But my library got me a copy first, so I haven’t read it yet. But it will be the copy I re-read (and I think I’ll be doing that a lot).

—–

4 1/2 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

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GUEST POST: Highlighting Shakespearen Women

I’m very happy to have this guest post today — I just wish I’d set the schedule correctly. I love a nicely designed (and informative) infographic, and this definitely fits that. When I was asked if I’d be interested in posting this, I jumped on it. It’s a great way to commemorate the Bard’s birth.

Shakespearean Ladies' NamesApril not only marks the start of warmer temperatures and a new pile of spring reads, it is also the month of the birth of legendary playwright, William Shakespeare. The writer was born on April 23, 1564, and to celebrate, we’re highlighting some of his most strong-willed female heroines. Invaluable created a neat visual [N.B.: the image is much nicer if you follow the link than it does on the left there] that showcases a handful of Shakespeare’s most influential female characters, and explains just how each of them was given their memorable names. From Ophelia to Juliet herself, browse through these wonderful female characters and relive some of the most electrifying plays written by the celebrated, William Shakespeare in honor of his birth.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam: A Very Pleasant Novel of the Elderly Curmudgeon Reevaluates His Life/Attitudes Stripe

Professor Chandra Follows His BlissProfessor Chandra Follows His Bliss

by Rajeev Balasubramanyam


Hardcover, 345 pg.
The Dial Press, 2019

Read: April 11 – 15, 2019


Cambridge’s Professor P. R. Chandrasekhar is an emeritus professor of Economics, and someone who has come so close to winning the Nobel that it’s jarring to many he hasn’t (well. . . “many” might be a stretch, who actually knows leading economists?). But he’s also alone. His ex-wife and youngest daughter live in Colorado, his eldest son is in Japan and his other daughter won’t let anyone tell him where she is. While he has no room to complain, clearly bits of his life could’ve gone better. He seems well-regarded by those still around him, and while he’s a hard teacher, he seems like a good one.

After a health scare (there’s some humor in it, don’t worry, it’s not that kind of book), and due to worries about his youngest daughter’s behavior, he takes a sabbatical to California. Things don’t go so well with the daughter, or his ex, or his ex’s new husband (the man she had an affair with before leaving Chandra). The trouble with the new husband leads Chandra into going to a “spiritual retreat” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Any type of spiritual retreat is the last place that anyone who knows this irascible conservative would expect him to go — including Chandra himself. But he goes, and as he’s the type to throw himself into anything he’s doing — no matter how silly he thinks it is. He plunges into the exercises.

And he doesn’t experience a giant epiphany turning him into a spiritual kind of guy. Nor does he find the exercises silly and spends the time mocking the experience. Instead, he starts to re-examine some things. Like the way he interacts with his kids, and how they react to him. So he starts trying with them in ways he hadn’t before — and it doesn’t go that well, honestly. But he makes some in-roads.

He ultimately returns to his home in Cambridge and makes some adjustments there, too. Eventually, some things happen that do permit him to further rehabilitate things with his children — and life in general.

I was really worried that this would be about Chandra finding some sort of enlightenment, throwing off all his accomplishments and convictions and becoming a totally different person. Instead, he becomes more thoughtful, more understanding and a better version of himself — with opportunities for further development. I don’t think that’s giving too much away, I hope not anyway. He’s worked hard all his life, and now starts to realize the price he and others paid for him to work as hard and as much as he did, and to achieve the success he has.

Chandra is a fascinating guy — I like the way he thinks. I like the very subtle humor in his approach and response to things, and wish more people in his life could catch it. I’d have liked more time with his daughters, I liked both of them and we only get to see the beginnings of better times between them and their father. Between family, new friends and new acquaintances, there are just too many characters to dig too deeply into. Which is one of the biggest problems this book has — too many great characters to fully appreciate any who aren’t in the title.

This looks like a “lighter” book from the title, cover, etc. — and it is. But it deals with some bigger ideas, just not in an overbearing way. It’s also not as funny as you’d expect from the description (or the blurbs on the cover). But there are subtle bits of humor throughout, and one or two very comedic moments. There aren’t laugh out loud moments — but there are plenty of smile quietly to yourself moments.

Balasubramanyam’s writing is strong, his characters are great, and he can keep the story moving well. He balances the lightness and the darkness of the story well, and while it’s not the kind of book that has a twist or three in the end, there are some things that you probably won’t see coming until they happen (and feel inevitable once they do).

At the end of the day, this was a very pleasant novel with one very interesting character, and a few too many other characters. Some of which had the potential to be just as interesting, but we couldn’t spend enough time with them because of their number. Trim a few of those, so the reader can focus those remaining and this book becomes much better. As it stands — I may not find a lot of bliss in these pages, but I found entertainment and relaxation and would certainly read Balasubramanyam in the future with great interest.

—–

3 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge

KA-E-RO-U Time to Go Home by B. Jeanne Shibahara: A Sweet Novel (with some pretty big problems)

KA-E-RO-U Time to Go HomeKA-E-RO-U Time to Go Home

by B. Jeanne Shibahara


Kindle Edition, 259 pg.
2018

Read: April 5 – 8, 2019


Every so often I get a book that I struggle writing about. I know what I want to say about it, but I’m worried that my point will get lost. So, stymied, the file sits blank on my screen for a couple of days while I hem and haw. I’ve been doing that for most of the week about this book (and afraid it was going to happen last week). Hear me out.

There are so many things that I’d typically complain about in a book — casual disregard for grammar, sentence structure, mechanics; characters that behave like characters in a book, not people; a plot that makes sense to no one (well, part of it, anyway). Really, this is not a good novel.

But . . . dang it, there’s something about this book that I liked. It’s like a long, meandering Sunday drive — or walk in the woods — you take a windy road/path to nowhere in particular — occasionally stopping at a scenic overlook or wandering from the route for a bit before resuming. You don’t get anywhere fast, you may hit a bumpy/rocky patch, but overall you count it as a pleasant afternoon.

So Meryl’s a Vietnam widow (it’s pretty unclear when this happens — other than her son is an adult now) comes into possession of a flag that belonged to a fallen Japanese soldier from the War in the Pacific. She’s pushed to go to Japan (where her son teaches English) to return the flag to the soldier’s family. She ends up going on the trip and finds the freedom and ability to move on from her husband’s death.

The love story is ludicrous. Actually, there are a couple of them (three) — and they’re all ridiculous, and old Disney cartoons do a better job depicting love. They’re not the actual heart of the book — but man, they get all the attention. The heart of the novel is this simple story of the return of this flag to what’s left of the family of this soldier.

When the novel focuses on that story? It’s a real winner. I can believe those people, I can believe those reactions. I can believe it– and I want to read it (not just put up with it). In addition to this, the looks at Japanese culture are great — on the whole, this novel doesn’t focus on the parts of Japanese culture usually featured in books/films.

We spend way too much time with characters — pages and pages — just for them to appear for a paragraph or three in the story. As interesting as these journeys into backstory may be, by the time we get back to the story for them to disappear just drives me crazy.

To put it in the kindest way I can: this is a very idiosyncratic with a charm that is its best feature. It’s sweet. The historical and cultural insights are great (and almost worth the effort alone). If you give this book a chance — and a lot of leeway — it’ll win you over.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, I think it’s clear that my opinion wasn’t that swayed by it.

—–

3 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch (Translator): A Fantastic, Moving, Fun Tale of a Grieving Widower

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch (Translator)


Hardcover, 337 pg.
Atria Books, 2014
Read: April 2 – 3, 2019

[His wife] often said that “all roads lead to something you were always predestined to do.” And for her, perhaps, it was something.

But for Ove it was someone.

I’ve been fully intending to read all of Fredrik Backman’s books after I read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (3 years ago), but there were a couple of things holding me back. 1. I loved My Grandmother so much that I didn’t want something to eclipse it; 2. I didn’t want to be so disappointed in one of his other books that it tainted my memory of My Grandmother. I finally told myself to get over it and just read him — what did I really have to lose?

That was obviously the right call — this was just fantastic.

If at this point, you haven’t heard of this book and decided if you’re going to read it or not, I’m not likely to persuade you. It’s sold about as many books as a person not named James Patterson, J. K. Rowling or Steven King should be able to expect. There’s been a movie made of it in Sweden and Tom Hanks is working on a version, too. This book is practically a phenomenon, and in the years since it’s publication, the author, Fredrik Backman has practically become an industry. So, if you haven’t read it by this point, there’s probably a reason, I’m not going to convince you otherwise. Nor do I think I can contribute much to the discussion about the book beyond what’s already been said. But I’m still driven to talk about it a bit.

Ove is a recent widower who has decided that it’s time to join his wife, and attempts to kill himself by various means in order to do that. But like an aged (and more dedicated) Lane Meyer, he can’t complete the deed. Something always interrupts him — generally, it’s the fools and incompetents that are his neighbors needing his help. Somehow these people have reached adulthood without learning how to back up a vehicle towing a trailer. bleeding a radiator or any number of things. So he stops what he was doing, helps his whatever neighbor needs it (complaining about it and insulting them all the time) and tries again the next day.

Ove’s struggles with the neighbors and his botched attempts to end his life are interspersed with his life story — his troubled childhood, career, early years of his marriage and the tragic end of it. The writing here is incredibly effective — and Backman doesn’t even try to hide his emotional manipulation — he essentially calls his shots sometimes — and it works. He plays whatever tune he wants and the reader dances to it. Try to get through the paragraph where Ove thinks about missing holding his wife’s hand unmoved, I dare you. I was teary at least once before the midpoint of the work — and about a half hour after finishing the book, I had to go back and re-read the last few pages with dry eyes so I could be certain I read what I thought I read.

Ove in his cantankerousness, his particular and peculiar way of approaching life — and in his grief — is a fantastic character. But I think that his neighbor, a Muslim immigrant mother of three, who deices that her angry old neighbor needs a friend (whether he wants one or not) and then becomes that friend (which he definitely doesn’t want) is an even better character. Parvaneh is smart, kind, fun and loving — and as stubborn as Ove. Next to his wife, she’s the best thing to happen to him. There are plenty of other great characters (the overweight computer tech who lives on the other side of Ove is a fine example).

I laughed, I cried, it moved me, Bob.

One of the easiest 5-Stars I’ve ever given. If you keep putting off reading this — knock it off, read the book.

—–

5 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge

Dispatches from a Tourist Trap by James Bailey: Jason’s Woes Follow (and Grow) in his new Small Town

Dispatches from a Tourist TrapDispatches from a Tourist Trap

by James Bailey

Series: The Jason Van Otterloo Trilogy, Book 2

Kindle Edition, 253 pg.
2019
Read: April 1, 2019

Sometimes lately I feel like life is a chess match, and no matter how hard I look at the board I can’t see the next move. Or maybe I think I see it, but really I don’t. Like my pawn is sitting there, all ready to put the other king in check, and somehow my queen gets swiped and two moves later I’ve lost the game and my pawn is still waiting there, impotent and useless.

So Jason mother’s Janice continues her bad decisions when it comes to men — she leaves her husband for a new guy, who happens to be the dentist she’s started working for. We met him in The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo, and they clearly didn’t waste time resuming whatever it was they had back in high school. Janice has moved herself and Jason to her parents’ house, enrolled Jason in a school filled with very friendly people, and tried to move on with her life.

Jason realizes full-well that his choices are a life with his grandparents and a much smaller school, hours away from his friends and girlfriend; or life with Rob, near them. As much as he doesn’t want to be in Icicle Flats, he knows it’s the better choice available. But he complains the whole time about it — this is good for readers, Jason complaining makes for an entertaining read. This time, he’s not just complaining in emails, he’s set up a blog, too. I was wondering how the blog was going to work instead of the emails — it’s actually a really good move, allowing Jason to tell longer stories without the emails being too long.

Which is good — because he has long stories to tell this time. There’s a literature club he’s involved with at school that’s discussing books that ruffle the feathers of many, which leads to all sorts of trouble. There’s a flirtation with pirate radio. A camping trip that is fantastic to read about (and probably not a lot of fun to live through). A disastrous experiment with eBay. And basically, a bucket-load of culture shock. Also, after a few short weeks of dating, Jason’s first real relationship becomes a long-distance one. High school relationships are bad enough, throwing in a few hour bus-ride into things is just asking for trouble. So yeah, between emails and his blog — he’s got a lot to write about, and his friends have a lot to respond to. Somehow, they make it through the school year more or less intact.

Jason feels incredibly authentic — immature, self-centered, irresponsible, but he’s got his moments. He can put others before himself, do the right thing because it’s right — not to stay out of trouble; But man, he can be frustrating the rest of the time. There were a lot of opportunities along the way here for him to be a better friend, a much better boyfriend, son and grandson; and he missed almost all of them. He comes through when necessary, don’t get me wrong and he’s not a bad guy — I just wish he’d grow up a bit faster. Which again, means that Bailey has nailed his characterization, this his how people his age should be.

I’m less than thrilled with Bailey’s approach to religious characters in these two books. I’m not questioning that there are people like the characters he depicts running around everywhere and that the situations would’ve played out a lot like they did here (but some of it pushed believability). I just would like a small indication that there were some sincere people trying to do the right thing in the middle of all this.

Having talked about The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo just two weeks ago, it feels hard to talk about this book beyond some of the plot changes — this feels like the same book, just with new problems. Which is pretty much the point, right? I still like Jason (as frustrating as he can be), his girlfriend is fantastic, I want good things to happen to Drew. Jason’s already complicated life is about to get a lot worse, which should prove very entertaining for the rest of us. A strong follow-up in this series.

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3.5 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

A Few Quick Questions With…Ian Shane

So, I just blathered on about Postgraduate, the great novel by Ian Shane. And now, here’s a little from the Man Himself in response to some questions I had for him. I hope you enjoy. For those keeping score at home, after a few Q&As of one of my theories being validated, I totally whiffed one here. I still liked the answer, just wish I’d asked a better question 🙂

Most authors have dozens of ideas bouncing around their craniums at once — what was it about this idea that made you say, “Yup — this is the one for me.”?
First, in the interest of full disclosure, Postgraduate is semi-autobiographical. For a while, I was running an Internet classic alternative radio station (which has been offline for a couple of years). During this time, I was having a hard time finding a story I wanted to write. There would be ideas here and there, but nothing ever developed into a compelling story. On a whim, I picked up a copy of Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel. It’s a memoir based on Spitznagel’s quest to rebuild his lost record collection. Not copies of the albums he lost, mind you…the actual albums. His musical mid-life crisis inspired me to write about mine.
In the writing of Postgraduate, what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV”.
I was really amazed at how quickly I wrote the first draft. I have a day job, so the amount of time I have to write is limited. I decided to track my progress on Facebook to keep myself accountable to my friends. The first night, I wrote 1330 words. The next night, I wrote 1557 words. Then it started to become a thing…how many nights can I write more than a thousand words? In the first week, I wrote 10,269 words. I started Postgraduate on October 25, 2017, and I finished the first draft on February 1, 2018. The total was 92,947 words in 97 days. I’ve never had a writing streak like that before, and I am not likely to ever have one like that again.
Danny’s reaction to the news that his favorite record store had closed (and some time ago), was one of my favorite parts of Postgraduate. Is it one of the semi-autobiographical parts of the book? Tell us a little about the store/its closing.
This is very autobiographical. There really was a Cats Record Store in my hometown (Evansville, Indiana). Cats was the place to find stuff from The Smiths or Elvis Costello. It was as I described it in the book…hardwood floors, cedar walls, and a general warm feeling when you walked in. There were two locations, on the east side and north side of town (the north side was the one I went to often). Not too long after I left town, my brother had told me that Cats had closed. I just assumed he meant the one on the east side. A few years later, on a visit to town, I decided to go to the north side and see what they had to offer. When I got there, I was grief-stricken to see the “For Lease” sign on the door. It really felt like a death.

However, showing that Cats had closed also served two subtler purposes. One, I wanted to have something unexpected to happen for Danny. It shatters the frozen-in-time, idealized image of the area around campus he had in his head. Something had to be not quite right, and that’s what I chose to be the missing ingredient.

And, as an aging Gen-Xer, I wanted to have an image of how people get music today, as opposed to how we did it when I was a college student. Hard copies, at least on a digital format, have fallen out of favor with “the kids.” I realize by saying this, I run the risk of sounding like the old guy who complains that a ticket for the moving picture show used to be only a nickel.

Why is it, do you think, that male readers respond so strongly to books about music? (your novels, Hornby’s, etc.)
I think it’s because guys (especially when we’re in our teens and 20s) have a terrible time expressing how we feel. I don’t want to get all “blame it on society,” but we were taught at an early age to not show our emotions—boys don’t cry (you know, kinda like that Cure song), and we have a hard time hashing out what was going on in our heads. It’s a thing of beauty when a songwriter reads our minds and says something more eloquently than we ever could and does it in 4/4 time. It grabs us and shakes us to our cores. In a way, music becomes a part of who we are. That’s the reason we made mixtapes to impress women. We couldn’t find the words to say we liked them and wanted to get to know them better, but Neil Finn could. So, we’d let him and the rest of Crowded House stand proxy for us for four and a half minutes.

When we read a book like High Fidelity or Postgraduate, we relate to using music as a primary coping mechanism (like Rob and Danny respectively) more than we get Heathcliff walking along the moors. While dealing with my last breakup, I listened to “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis on a continuous loop while drinking a heroic amount of whiskey. I didn’t spit out a two-page soliloquy while standing on my patio and looking at the moon. It’s just how we do it now.

I’d imagine that in a novel like this, it’d be difficult to keep from making Sam (the one that got away) an idealized woman, or Angela (the adulterous ex) into . . . an idealized harlot, I guess. Especially with this being written from Danny’s perspective. How do you walk the line?
I don’t really know if I thought about it too much while I was writing Angela and Sam. I just had a full picture in my mind who these women were…their wonderful qualities and their flaws. I had an idea of what made Danny and Angela work and what didn’t. The same was true with Danny and Sam.
Thanks for your time and willingness to let me badger you with these questions – again, I really enjoyed Postgraduate and truly hope that it finds the audience it deserves.