Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

Big Fish

Big Fish

Daniel Wallace (Adult Fiction)

Edward Bloom was born in Ashland, Alabama during the driest summer in forty years.  Edward knew he was destined for greatness…at least that’s what he always imagined.  He was to be a big fish in a big pond.  After all, wasn’t it his birth that finally brought water to his town’s scorched ground?  Weren’t people and animals inexplicably drawn to him?  Throughout his life, Edward would be a sailor, a successful business owner, and a true man of the world who also bought an entire town down to the last square inch.  Edward was also a husband, a father, and a friend to all.  But most of all, Edward Bloom was a myth.  His son, William, longs to be close to a father whose past is as vast and complicated as the current space between the two.  With Edward on his deathbed, can William distinguish fact from fiction so that he can better understand his father?  Surely stories of a two-headed geisha, a giant, and a mermaid can’t possibly be true…can they?

Daniel Wallace gives us a quirky and lighthearted story showing us the complex and messy relationship between a father and son.  This book is a quick read so only lightly scratches the surface regarding Edward’s inability or unwillingness to emotionally connect with his son.  All attempts at intimacy by William yield little more than a humorous story and a punchline and the reader shares in his growing frustration and apathy.  Edward explains to William that his own father was rarely around, but this fact doesn’t make it any less painful for William who is constantly at odds with a pithy metaphor or a ready one-liner.

Fathers are so many things to their sons or daughters: superhero, knight, prince charming, mentor, teacher, coach, buddy.  Like Edward, our own dads seem invincible, immortal, and a tad mythical.  Edward measured greatness through deeds.  William merely wanted a father who was an active participant rather than an occasional onlooker. And although laughter is said to be the best medicine, perhaps laughter is not the medicine, but it merely makes the real medicine go down a little easier.

Edward once said to William, “Remembering a man’s stories makes his immortal, did you know that?”  I have many stories from my father’s past—stories made up of fact and fiction that intertwine and entangle themselves like vines on a trellis.  Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the truth from fantasy, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter because you realize that even though your dad didn’t own a town or rescue a mermaid, he’s still pretty great because he’s YOUR dad and that alone makes him a pretty big fish.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of Babel

The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst (Adult Fiction)

“Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.  There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei.”

Paul Iverson is desperate to understand how his young, beautiful, and artistic wife died.  Judging by her injuries and how her body landed, the police conclude that she didn’t jump.  There are so many things that Paul is just discovering like there are two ways of falling and that each one tells a story.  That on the day she died, Lexy rearranged the books on their bookshelf and cooked an entire steak just for Lorelei.  The books, the steak, and the apple tree all tell Paul that the day Lexy died wasn’t a usual day.  There are so many questions and the only one who can answer them can’t even speak…yet.

Carolyn Parkhurst delivers a novel that is a thriller wrapped around a mystery and enclosed within an endearing and heartbreaking love story.  Paul is our narrator and shares with us the moment he heard of Lexy’s death and then rewinds to show us how his and Lexy’s story began with their initial meeting and subsequent first date.  His voice is rich in detail and overflows with the love he feels for his wife and the loss he experiences by a life cut tragically short.  Every marriage has its ups and downs and Paul and Lexy’s marriage is no different; however, she was the yin to his yang and their union was symbiotic albeit sometimes tempestuous.

The Dogs of Babel is a beautiful, painful, thoughtful, and at times humorous story, but at its very core is a man grieving and desperate for answers.  His obsession of finding out the truth from his dog is futile and ridiculous.  We know it, his friends and colleagues know it, and even Paul himself knows it, but when you’re drowning, you’ll grasp for anything that can serve as a lifeline.  In this case, his lifeline is Lorelei.  Parkhurst gives us a memorable and stirring novel about the ones left behind when a sudden and untimely tragedy occurs.  The ones left with questions, loneliness, and oftentimes guilt and whose daily goals are measured by mere breaths.

Paul Iverson was a linguist by profession, and he often made a game of seeing how many words he could make out of a name.  He felt that these newly formed words somehow gave insight into the person themselves.  With The Dogs of Babel, I see the words blood, desolate, loathe, and death, but I also see self, glee, holdfast, and heals.  In the Bible, The Tower of Babel signified the beginning of the division of mankind through the infliction of diverse languages—punishment for man’s desire to reach the heavens for “godlike” status.  But Parkhurst reminds us that grief and love are universal and transcend the written word or spoken language.  They unite us in our healing and help us find a way to move forward…one breath at a time.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Heidi W. Durrow (Adult Fiction)

Rachel Morse is eleven years old and living with her paternal grandmother in Portland, Oregon.  Born to a Danish mother and an African-American GI father, she finds herself caught between two very different worlds and struggles to find a place somewhere in the middle.  However, it is the early 1980s and Rachel is often forced to choose between black and white: “I see people two different ways now: people who look like me and people who don’t look like me.”  She builds her world around “last-time things” (like speaking Danish or saying Mor, which means mother) and “first-time things” (like feeling shame or excluded) and lives each day storing her anger and hurt inside an imaginary bottle.  Fighting against a tragic past and facing an uncertain future, will Rachel have to give up one part of herself in order to embrace the other?

Durrow gives us a haunting and heartbreaking coming-of-age story about a biracial girl desperately trying to find her place in the world.  Like Rachel, Durrow’s mother was Danish, her father was a black serviceman, and she possesses a set of piercing-blue eyes.  We can see what Durrow must have dealt with as we see Rachel longing to fit in and be accepted.  Rachel’s backstory is tragic and unimaginable and one can only imagine the inner strength our young heroine possesses in order to avoid a fate like her mother’s.  The beginning of the book is a little confusing as Durrow floods the reader with several characters in various situations across different points in time.  The storyline eventually smooths out, but then you begin to understand the meaning behind the title.  This launches the story in an unpredictable direction and the pace never slows from there.

Perhaps the most distressing storyline belongs to Nella, Rachel’s mother.  A Danish immigrant, she is unused to the treatment her biracial children face in America (her marriage was generally accepted in Europe).  As a mother, she loves her children unconditionally and vows to protect them at all costs.  She is broken by the injustices thrown at her children and wonders why people are unable to see her children as she does: “My children are one half of black.  They are also one half of me.  I want them to be anything.  They are not just a color that people see.”

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is haunting and harrowing.  It is not one of those feel-good books that is wrapped up in a pretty bow.  Instead, we are given a story that is raw and poignant and uncomfortably ugly but honest.  Under anyone else’s pen, the reader might be left with a sense of hopelessness, but Durrow is, in a sense, telling us her own story which, at its very core, is a story of survival.  A story where a girl refuses to be boiled down to simply this or that.  She is more than just the sum of her parts and her acceptance of this is enough to give us a relatively satisfying ending.  As Rachel says, “I’m not the new girl.  I’m not the color of my skin.  I’m a story.  One with a past and a future unwritten.”  And with that, the girl who fell from the sky realized that she had wings and could fly.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut (Adult Fiction)

By all measures, Billy Pilgrim would be considered a lucky fellow.  He’s survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945, a POW camp, and a mountainside plane crash.  He’s married, has children, and enjoys financial security as a successful optometrist.  But, Billy also time jumps, which can prove inconvenient at times.  He’s also been kidnapped by aliens and taken to another planet where he spends his time as a zoo exhibit.  Did I mention that he’s in the sights of a hired assassin?  It’s just another day in the life of Billy Pilgrim.

Slaughterhouse-Five is considered semi-autobiographical as Vonnegut shares many of the same military experiences as his main character.  His novel is an anti-war dark comedy that delivers a bitter social commentary on the pitfalls of free will and the destructive nature of man.  It also flirts with being a bit anti-American since the description of the American POWs—as compared to the other detainees—are far less flattering and the particular slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse-Five) chosen to hold the Americans was once used to house pigs.  Although Vonnegut was born and raised in Indiana, this novel and its message were undoubtedly influenced by the current events of the late 60s: Woodstock, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Protests, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  Vonnegut lays it all out there and has no qualms letting us know that he was none too pleased about the current states of affairs at that time.

Vonnegut’s novel was selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, although I personally found it difficult to enjoy.  Given the time of its publication (1969), I understand the sentiments that Slaughterhouse-Five articulates, but I think less would have been more in this case.  Combining the firebombing of Dresden with time travel and then adding alien abduction on top of it left the story feeling disjointed and haphazard.  Just when the reader is feeling engrossed in a particular storyline, we are catapulted to a different time or planet.  It’s like trying to stand on the deck of a ship during rough seas and not seeing any sign of calm waters on the horizon.  Rather than being able to admire the overall view, you just want the voyage to be over so you can return to solid, stable ground.

Vonnegut also uses a lot of sensory imagery and phrasal repetition to reinforce the feeling of pain, the approach of danger, or the smell of death.  He is particularly partial to the phrase “So it goes” and one individual even took the time to count each occurrence…which turned out to be 106.  These three simple words always followed a mention of death and served as a convenient means of topic transition; however, by the fiftieth time you’ve seen it, it begins to lose its impact and has outlived its intended purpose.  Solid ground never seemed so far out of reach.

With all of the blatant anti-war messaging found throughout the book, I thought nothing stated Vonnegut’s intended message more simply and effectively than a rather benign scene where Billy jumped back in time and was watching a late movie.  It was running in reverse and showed American bombers during WWII.  As Billy watched, planes once pockmarked with bullet holes were suddenly pristine, German fighter planes were busy sucking bombs back into their holds, smoke and fire were lifted from the ravaged city, crewmen and civilians were again healthy and whole, and the dangerous minerals used to make those deadly weapons of war were safely restored back to the ground and no longer a danger.  Unfortunately, we know all too well that this didn’t happen.  So it goes.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olsson

Astrid and Veronika

Astrid & Veronika

Linda Olsson (Adult Fiction)

“’And who will you dream of, Veronika?’ Astrid said, without taking her eyes off the water.  ‘With the flowers under your pillow.  Who?’  Veronika didn’t answer.  She sat with her legs pulled up and her arms clasped around them, her chin resting on her knees.  ‘I came here to escape my dreams,’ she said eventually.”

Author Veronika Bergman arrived in Stockholm, Sweden with just a few bags and her personal belongings.  Her rental home was next door to Astrid Mattson, the village witch—at least that’s what the people in town call her.  Astrid is nearly eighty years old and keeps to herself.  She doesn’t like people and has left the village only once in her life.  She likes her secrets and her solitude, but when she meets Veronika, something remarkable happens.  Something quite unexpected.  Astrid begins to care and slowly these two women discover that although loss and heartbreak connect them, friendship would forever bind them.

Astrid & Veronika is Linda Olsson’s first novel and was originally published in New Zealand under the title Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs.  Her writing is fluid and the storytelling is effortless and captivating.  Olsson gives readers Veronika and Astrid—two women tormented by their past, haunted by their memories, and brought together by fate.  These two restless souls form a committed bond that becomes instinctive—each aptly anticipating the other’s needs and providing comfort, support, and understanding.

I truly enjoyed this book, but found that there were too many unanswered questions that kept me from wholly appreciating Olsson’s extraordinary debut work.  In particular, Astrid’s story had one pivotal plot point that left me confused and frankly horrified at the choice she made.  Her backstory lacked sufficient detail that might have allowed me to be more sympathetic to her and the action she took.  Instead, Olsson put the burden on me to draw my own conclusions, which is seldom a sufficient or satisfying solution.

Olsson’s original book title came from a poem by Karin Boye called “Min stackars unge, My poor little child”, which she includes in her book.  It accurately describes our heroines and reads in part,

“My poor child, so afraid of the dark,

who have met ghosts and another kind,

who always among those clad in white

glimpses those with evil faces,

now let me sing you gentle songs,

from fright they free, from force and cramp.”

Astrid and Veronika are two women separated by age and circumstance but connected through the ghosts of their pasts.  Both lost mothers and loves, but through patience and understanding, they formed their own gentle song and found the strength and courage to live and to love again.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Distinguished Guest by Sue Miller

The Distinguished Guest

The Distinguished Guest

Sue Miller (Adult Fiction)

“It is probably fair to ask to what extent Lily Maynard is conscious of the effect she makes, but it’s not a question you’ll easily find the answer to.”

Lily Roberts Maynard reached literary fame at age seventy-two with The Integrationist: A Spiritual Memoir.  She’s had moderate success with various fictional short stories that followed, but nothing to the scale of her memoir.  Now Lily, who was once celebrated and sought after, finds herself living in relative seclusion with her architect son, Alan, and his wife as Parkinson’s disease slowly consumes her body and mind.  Finding themselves once again under the same roof, both Lily and Alan confront decisions made in the past while trying to find a way to move forward.

This is the third book by Sue Miller that I’ve read (the other two being The World Below and Lost in the Forest) and I continue to find myself underwhelmed with her work.  The Distinguished Guest is described as a “moving story of a mother and son”, but in reality, Miller gives us a story of a mother and son…and her late husband…and her deceased parents, as well as a son…and his wife…and his two siblings…and his two sons.  Throw in a visiting journalist who has her own messy backstory and you have a novel simply overburdened and overwhelmed with relationships.  This might be the reason I have trouble connecting with Miller’s books.  She inundates her stories with too many character profiles, backstories, and conflicts that spread the reader’s focus entirely too thin and leave little or nothing left to hold onto.  Just as “too many cooks spoil the broth”, Miller gives us far too many relationships that ultimately spoil the story.

I wish I liked this book more since there are several interesting and important issues that Miller encounters head on: race relations, religious faith versus spirituality, social conformity, and infidelity.  But these subjects are not enough to lift The Distinguished Guest from its own emotional saturation and social mire.  Ayn Rand once said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”  In this case, a few less cooks would have made for a much more pleasing broth.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Matthew Dicks (Adult Fiction)

Max Delaney is eight years old, in the third grade, and likes rules.  In fact, he likes lots and lots of rules.  Rules like bedtime is at 8:30 p.m. (no sooner and no later) and no breakfast after 9:00 a.m. or only wearing seven pieces of clothing at one time (not counting shoes).  This is who Max is and this is his world and nobody knows this world better than Budo—Max’s imaginary friend.  Budo knows Max inside and out.  He talks to him, plays with him, and watches him every night before he goes to sleep.  Budo is Max’s best friend and as long as Max thinks Budo is real, Budo won’t disappear and NOT disappearing is very important to Budo.  But when Max doesn’t come home from school one day, Budo is forced to decide between Max’s freedom and his own possible extinction.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is narrated by Budo who invites us to share his life with an extraordinary little boy with autism.  According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 59 children was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2018, so it is very likely that you (like me) know someone with autism.  Dicks’s description of Max and his habits, daily activities, and mannerisms are meticulously detailed and painfully accurate.  Those familiar with autism know all too well the helplessness that Max’s parents experience on a daily basis.  Their never-ending quest for “normalcy” only adds to their compounded stress while their desire to connect with their child is heartbreaking in its futility.

Dicks just doesn’t deliver an accurate portrayal of a child who, as Budo says, “…doesn’t live on the outside.  Max is all inside.”, but he also gives us a book of devotion and friendship.  It’s a story about putting someone else’s wants and needs above your own; about doing what is right versus what is expedient; and about finding that inner strength that you never knew you possessed.  Budo often said that Max was the bravest little boy in the world: “Max is not like any other person in the whole world.  Kids make fun of him because he is different.  His mom tries to change him into a different boy and his dad tries to treat him like he is someone else.  Even his teachers treat him differently, and not always nicely.  With all that, Max still gets out of bed every morning and goes to school and the park and the bus stop and even the kitchen table.  But you have to be the bravest person in the world to go out every day, being yourself when no one likes who you are.”

This novel successfully checks all the boxes: suspenseful, emotional, insightful, compelling, humorous, heartwarming, chilling, and simply unforgettable.  Max and Budo will stay in your heart and mind long after you’ve read the last page.  People often said that Max couldn’t see the forest for the trees, as people with autism generally hone in on the small details without seeing the overall bigger picture.  Perhaps Max can’t see the forest for the trees, but he does see the blade of grass and the rock and the ladybug and the clover and perhaps that alone is something to be celebrated and appreciated.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com