Monday, July 24, 2017

30. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

I'm not supposed to be writing this on Monday night. The way this little system works is that I start the book on Sunday, read throughout the week, finish on Thursday or Friday and write a review on Saturday.

I finished too soon. (save the joke there, you perv. I already made it in my head.)

Anyway, I wasn't supposed to be done reading book 30 of 2017 so quickly. But, I started this on the flight back from San Diego Friday and was done with the book by Saturday afternoon.

I couldn't stop. And, now, I'm sad it's over.

From appearances alone, this is probably not a book I would have chosen. It wasn't even on my radar until I heard an NPR podcast and two different bookstore owners listed it as a top book of the summer. What can I say, I do what bookstore owners on NPR tell me to do. Even when I started, I wasn't expecting much. I thought it would be a decent beach read, even though I was reading it on my way home from the beach. I didn't expect what this book delivered: an emotional onslaught, a tale of love won and lost and won and lost again, and a commentary on what we expect from sexy, powerful women - and, how we treat them when they give us what we think we want.

Evelyn Hugo is a former Hollywood star, now widowed and nearing the end of her life. She's ready to tell her life story now that everyone who played a part in it is dead and she gives the honor of writing what is sure to be a best seller to a magazine writer that nobody knows. There's a reason she chooses Monique Grant, which is alluded to and built towards throughout the novel. Within that larger context, Evelyn tells her story. From giving up her virginity to getting out of Hell's Kitchen to earning an Oscar. But, it's the story in between that left me captivated. The story of Evelyn's seven husbands and the question at the heart of it all.

Who is the true love of her life?

It would be easy, of course, to reduce Evelyn Hugo to a starlet who married to get ahead. As we meet each man in her life, we realize - it was almost never about love. But, it wasn't about the casting couch either. We learn that, while the world saw marriage after marriage to producers and leading men, Evelyn's true love was someone else entirely; it was someone she had to keep hidden from the world.

The obvious comparison is Elizabeth Taylor, right? But, even Liz couldn't have lived a story quite like this. Evelyn Hugo is a woman you ache to know - a starlet on screen, a beauty from birth, Hugo is the kind of woman other women want to be like and men want to be with. They describe her bosom like it's the 8th wonder of the world. She was very aware of the power she had, simply by flashing that smile and making men think they had a chance. And she feels the reality of what happens when she owns that sexuality and is judged for using it in return.

Evelyn tells her story without apology, even as we watch her destroy the people she loves. You find yourself frustrated with her choices, perhaps mostly because you know you might do the exact same in her position. And, you ache along with her for the resolution of that hidden, complicated love story that sustains her through it all.

This book asks what would you give up to live the life you've always dreamed of? Your past? Your future? Your dignity? The love of your life? And, it slaps you in the face that, in reality, we almost always realize the gravity of our choices after it's too late.

It's hard to explain why this book spoke to me enough that, two days later, I can't let it go. Even writing about it now, I feel like I'm not doing it justice. Hell, I joined a Facebook group dedicated to discussing the story even though I hate anything that resembles a book club. There are just some books that speak to you, for whatever reason. Maybe it's that deep, enduring love story. Maybe it's the strength and vulnerability of a woman who is in control of her sexuality and punished for it, too. Maybe we can all relate to what it will be like to someday own all of our choices and be comfortable enough in our own skin to share it with the world.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

29. Idaho

The next two books on the journey were crucial. I knew that I would be traveling for the entire week I was supposed to be reading book 29 and the start of book 30, so I knew they had to be good. Do you put extra pressure on the books you read when you know you'll be on the road or in the air? I totally do. Because, for that couple of hours, you know you won't be able to check your phone for texts or to absentmindedly search Twitter. It's you and the book. And, it better measure up.

Here's book 29, which I began on a two hour flight to San Diego and finished the night before we flew home. Most of it was read on the flight there, but I found myself reaching for it after long days at the beach/at the zoo/with my family. It's captivating. 

I knew I wanted to read Emily Ruskovich's Idaho since the first time I read the jacket in the bookstore. Though, I realize now, it is not at all what I thought it would be. The jacket describes a man living a new life with a new wife, who is only somewhat aware of the life he lived before her. For whatever reason, I imagined the book would be reminiscent of the standoff at Ruby Ridge. Knowing it was set in North Idaho, which I have covered as a journalist for 15 years, I just assumed that's where the author would go. I was wrong, but it very clearly has remnants of the best and worst of this part of the country. The author is from this area and her knowledge of it is woven through this book in a way only a native could write.

So, the book. 

It tells the story of Ann and Wade and the life they have built for themselves in the rugged mountains of North Idaho. Intentionally isolated, in geography and emotion. Each had a life before each other and came together through circumstances that prove we are all, somehow, connected. We are one turn of the road, one phone call, one life experience away from building a new life and new connections. Ann and Wade's love was born from unspeakable violence and tragedy; as Wade's mind fails and he begins to forget all that he's lost, Ann finds herself trying to keep that part of Wade's life alive and together. 

((I love that pulled quote; even more, I love this website it came from, which I plan to devour the rest of today.))

While so much of this book shows these connections we have, it also reminds us that, sometimes, we aren't all meant to find the end of the string. We pull and pull and, sometimes, we unravel instead of tie into a bow. It seems to remind us that while we have this primal need to assign meaning to things, sometimes, life truly is made up of a series of random acts. No matter how hard we try, sometimes things don't always connect.

This book is truly a tapestry, weaving together stories and perspectives. The individual strands cover a foundation of unimaginable loss. The author jumps from perspective to perspective, from year to year. As a reader, you expect that eventually these stories will arrive in a single place. They do not; the question of whether or not you like the book probably comes down to how much you're willing to accept the unfinished nature of it all.

I want the payoff. But, I appreciate that it's not always that simple. I wanted answers for the violence, I wanted resolution to lives, unfinished. But, is the book any worse for not giving them to me? Not at all. It's beautifully written, wonderfully told. The characters are complex and imperfect, much like the storylines that define their lives.

So, was it a good airplane read? Yeah. I lost myself in it, truly. It's the kind of book where you look up and around you and somehow have forgotten that the rest of the world hasn't come along with you. Once I landed, the rough mountain landscape stood in stark contrast to the palm trees swaying around me as I read. I felt deeply for every character, on every page.

Next up, book 30. I started it on the plane ride home and have breezed through 213 pages in two days. Yeah, it's that good. And, may be the perfect summer read. Review, coming soon!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

28. The Wonder

This aint no beach read.

I know you're supposed to read lighter stories in the summertime. Books where you can doze off between the pages; pages that get soaked on the corners from the pool or the sunscreen.

This is not. that.

I've thought about reading this for awhile now. Emma Donaghue's book Room shook me to my core and I wanted more of this genius author inside my brain. But, for some reason, I always put it back on the shelf. Maybe I didn't want to be shaken.

When this was actually available at my small neighborhood library, I figured it was time. 

The premise of the book is that a nurse comes to care for a little girl in Ireland who is attracting attention and visitors for a very simple reason: she hadn't eaten in months. According to local lore, Anna didn't need food anymore. According to Anna, she was existing on the manna of heaven. But, an independent commission thought something else might be at play. They hired the nurse and a nun to keep a two-week watch, trying to either prove the girl was, in fact, some sort of miracle marvel. Or, to prove it was all a hoax.

The nurse is instantly skeptical and spends the first nights of her watch trying to prove the child is sneaking food. Over time, her concern for the girl grows and she tries to convince Anna's family and community that she is at risk. But, can she make her case before it's too late?

I've had a hard time describing this book to people. I don't want to give away what is a pretty extreme twist about 85% of the way through. I'm also having a hard time deciding if I should recommend it. It's extremely well-written, of course. But, this thing is heavy. It starts heavy, it progressively builds and the turn it takes turns your stomach as well.

The book is a commentary on Ireland early in the last century. It's a referendum, of sorts, on faith. And, it makes your blood boil at the way society would choose to ignore extreme dangers and terrible crimes, all because it felt like a family's personal business. It also reminds you that, more than 100 years later, not everything has changed.

I felt like I slogged through this, but I actually read it all in three nights. It kept my attention and built my concern. But, it's definitely not your typical summer read. Put it on your list for, say, late January. It's bleak outside already; maybe you won't notice the gray that covers you when you read it.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

27. Cork Dork

I love wine.

I love everything about it. I love the taste, I love the tradition, I love the pageantry, I love the warm sensation of the first sip and I love standing in a vineyard looking at grapes, knowing their amazing potential. I love wine so much, attendees of my birthday party last night left me with 20 bottles to enjoy in the future,

What this book taught me? I don't know shit about wine.

Let's walk it back for a second. I probably know more about wine than the average consumer. I've interviewed several winemakers, I've tasted wine in Sonoma and Yakima and Greece. But, wine is so much bigger than what most of us even care to explore. This book reminded me of that - and, instead of being intimidated, it made me really excited about what's out there.

Bianca Bosker was a tech journalist whose interest in wine was piqued not by the grocery store wines most of us drink every day, but by the high-stakes world of wine that most of us cannot even imagine. These are people who don't brush their teeth and don't drink coffee for fear of it altering their sensitive palate. These are people who LICK ROCKS in New York City, just to expose themselves to more flavors. These are people who describe a good wine as "hitting you in the chest with a harpoon" - and if it's not that experience, they don't want it.

Bosker went headlong into this world, working her way from being a "cellar rat" in one of NYC's finest restaurants to studying for the test to become a certified sommelier. She explores the past (like, the Plato/Aristotle past) and even maps her own brain to find how it reacts to the wine she drinks. It's fascinating, well-written and an eye-opening jaunt through a world most of us will never experience for ourselves.

I read about grapes I've never heard of and also got a great lesson into how to really taste wine. Not "is this good or bad" - but, what is your mouth telling you that can reveal a wine's alcohol content, structure and origin. I sipped a $10/bottle Washington Syrah while I read and felt woefully inadequate. But, this isn't a book designed to make us feel unsophisticated.

See, that's my kind of sommelier. Bosker introduces Grieco, the man behind some really badass wine bars, to show the counter to the pomp and circumstance of the wine experience. While much of the book exposes the obsessive traditions associated with the world of high-end wine, Bosker doesn't try to convince us that there's a right way to drink wine. In fact, she scoffs at the way the verbiage of wine tasting has become homogenized to the point tasters are often just repeating words they know are supposed to be associated with a specific wine, even if they're not tasting those flavors themselves.

She does, however, want you to look beyond the world of Sutter Home and Menage a Trois (the wine, not the act. You know.) You may like the taste of mass produced wine, but isn't it better to experience a wine that tells a story? Totally. Even if it gives your palate a workout.

I fell in love with a wine like this. While tasting wine near Lake Chelan, Washington last year, I tried a Cab from a vineyard that had been in the midst of a wildfire a few years before. Wildfire smoke sank over the vines for weeks. The result? A wine they cannot replicate, with a smoky, campfire feel. I bought it immediately. While I was tasting, a group of young women came in on a bachelorette party wine tour. They cringed at the taste of the Fira, saying it was too strong. They wanted to get drunk off some classic Chardonnay! Wrong? No. You like what you like. But boring, for sure.

Point is, this book doesn't to make you feel bad about enjoying a fruit bomb every now and then. Sometimes, you just want the mega purple-infused sure thing. But, it does push you to look beyond that and get a little adventurous from time to time. Spend a little money, trust the sommelier and lick a few rocks now and then to give your tongue a little workout.

On second thought, don't lick the rocks. Leave that to the experts.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

26. The Graveyard Book

If you would have told me in January that I would read two books this year that were set in graveyards and featured talking ghosts, I would have told you you're crazy. But, here we are. And, you know what? Both such books have been among my favorites.

I didn't intend to read this. Unlike most avid readers, I'm finding out, I had never heard of Neil Gaiman. But, I truly believe sometimes books pick us. I was picking up a gift for a departing co-worker and one of my favorite Spokane stores (Atticus is part coffee shop, part wine store, part book store). My two boys were with me and they're not all that patient in a store that doesn't have video games. So, I was rushing through the shelves and trying to keep them from strangling each other in public when I saw several Gaiman books. I figured if they had more than one, they must be fans. I picked up this one first, read the back and was intrigued. Normally, I'd open the book and read a page, just to see if I like the writer's style, etc. But, I didn't have time, so I grabbed it and took it to the register. There, the kindly bearded man asked if I'd ever read Gaiman before. I said know and - I shit you not - the man got a twinkle in his eye. He told me this was a "good start" and that he and his wife went to Europe and visited the graveyard where this story takes place. I knew I picked a good one.

So, what is it that grabbed my attention? The synopsis on the back. The Graveyard Book describes itself as an "ingenious and captivating reimagining of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book" but, in this story, Mowgli is a boy named Bod and he's raised by ghosts, not by animals. Sounds weird, right? But, it totally works.

That's how the story begins. The prose is simple and haunting and, even though I read these lines at a swimming pool crowded with kids, I was instantly sucked into the darkness. A man named Jack kills a family, but a toddler sneaks away. The man tries to pursue him, but the curious boy toddles into the graveyard and the ghosts there decide to raise him and protect him from the man whose work clearly is not done. We follow along as the boy they name Nobody - Bod for short - grows up in this mystical world. 

Because there are teachers in the graveyard, Bod learns to read and write. Eventually, he goes into the human world and even goes to school. But, that public immersion throws his life again into chaos, as the forces that set out to destroy his family realize they have the chance to finish the job with him. It is then where Bod is able to use all the gifts he's learned from the ghosts to protect himself and the future. 

Like The Jungle Book, you watch Bod grow up and realize that he will have to leave the graveyard and live his life. And it fills you with such a sense of hope to watch this young man set off into the world.

This is the kind of book you get so absorbed it, you find yourself blocking out the world completely. You have to blink a few times to focus back on the world around you. There aren't many of these out there, so when you find them, you want to tell the world.

I have no doubt I'm not doing this book justice. But, if you can willfully suspend your disbelief, it's a consuming and magical tale. And, as the guy at Atticus told me, it's a good start; there's absolutely more Gaiman in my future.

As soon as I started reading it, I thought back to book #10 that I read this year, Lincoln in the Bardo. Also set in a graveyard, it shares perspective on life from the dead. I'm not the only reader of both to draw parallels between the two, but I have yet to see George Saunders reference this book as an inspiration for his. If you've read Bardo and liked it, you'll like this; the biggest difference here is that it's not told from the ghosts' perspective - it's told by an outside narrator. For that reason, I find it more accessible for a casual read - and, easier to lose yourself in it.