The Walk by Richard Paul Evans

The Walk

The Walk

Richard Paul Evans (Adult Inspirational)

Alan Christoffersen had it all: a successful advertising agency, a big house, luxury cars, and a beautiful wife who was the love of his life.  But a horrible accident would set off a series of events that would send his world crashing down.  Within weeks, he would lose everything and Alan Christoffersen, the man who had everything, was suddenly left with nothing.  It seemed that even God had abandoned him.  So, Alan decided to walk away from his troubles…literally.  With nothing more than a backpack and a few essentials, Alan set off on a near 3,500 journey stretching from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida hoping that this walk might bring him some clarity to a life that didn’t make sense anymore.

I’ve read many What-would-you-do-if-type books: What would you do if you could live forever?  What would you do if you had one wish?  Go back in time?  Trade places with someone?  Were invisible?  This one was different.  Tackling the idea of how to move forward after you’ve lost everything is daunting.  Alan faced this situation, questioned his own faith, and wondered why love, hope, and grace had been so mercilessly taken from him.

The Walk is the first in a series of five books in The Walk Series by Richard Paul Evans.  This first installment takes Alan all the way across the state of Washington: from Seattle to Spokane.  During this first leg of his journey, he meets several people who remind him what kindness, generosity, and gratitude look like: a handless man looking for answers, a scarred woman offering hope, an innkeeper who faced death, and a stranger returning a favor.  Each person along his journey offers Alan little bits of wisdom and insight and their brief presence in his life leaves him undeniably changed.

The Walk is an easy and quick read.  Evans deals with religion and faith without being overly preachy and gives us a likeable protagonist who seeks the good in humanity although he himself has been betrayed by those he had trusted most.  In the opening pages, we know Alan completes his walk and eventually reaches Key West, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” and we know that Alan has a very long journey ahead of him.  A journey that will hopefully answer some of his questions and perhaps even restore his faith.

Alan keeps a diary of his walk.  In one entry, he wrote, “We truly do not know what’s in a book until it is opened.”  Likewise, we often don’t know what’s in a person until we ask or until we have the opportunity to get to know them.  We don’t know their past, the burdens they may carry, or the pain they may be enduring.  The few people that Alan encountered during his walk through Washington began as unopened books, but by extending a kindness or even just a simple greeting, those books began to open and Alan discovered that perhaps the love, hope, and grace that he thought had been denied him had never really abandoned him after all.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka (Adult Historical Fiction)

They came from all over Japan: Yamaguchi, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Yamanashi, and Kagoshima.  Most were virgins ranging in age from just fourteen to thirty-seven years old.  Some came from the city and wore stylish clothes while those from the country wore patched and re-dyed kimonos.  They all came—from the mountains to the seashore—to board a boat that would take them to America.  All were going with a promise and a picture.  All were leaving to marry.

Julie Otsuka writes about the “picture brides” (similar to mail-order brides) of the early 1900s who, through a matchmaker and family recommendations, traveled from Japan to marry a fellow countryman in America.  The families of the brides were often influenced by money, the brides went to escape poverty and held dreams of a better life, and the grooms were looking for companionship while reaping the benefit of an extra pair of working hands.  The women quickly realized the folly of their aspirations and that their lives as migrant workers would define them as no better than slaves.  The promises of a picture showing a smiling young man with a hat in his hands standing in front of a white picket fence were quickly replaced with beatings, curfews, and living conditions often unfit for an animal.

Otsuka presents these women’s stories in eight sections: Boat Ride, First Night, Whites, Babies, The Children, Traitor, Last Day, and A Disappearance.  She takes her readers from the initial journey to America and then through marriage and childbirth and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps. We are dragged through an emotional gauntlet yet these disturbing and deeply personal stories lack any kind of emotional teeth.  There’s simply nothing to really sink in to due to the choice of the author’s writing style.  Otsuka opts to tell her story through first-person collective.  Because she paints her story using very wide brushstrokes, we are presented with anywhere from six to twelve lives in the span of a single paragraph.  She sacrifices depth for breadth and we end up with prose that reads more like a bulleted presentation.  When describing the dreams of the women’s children, she writes, “One wanted to save up money to buy his own farm.  One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father.  One wanted to become anything but.  One wanted to plant a vineyard. One wanted to start his own label.  One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch.”  And on and on.  The vast majority of the book is like this with sentences starting off with “Some of us” or “Most of us” or Many of us”.  Only briefly are we allowed some glimpse into the humanity of these women when we get flashes of names like Akiko, Kazuko, Chiyo, and Makiyo.  The only time we really get a sense of mourning and loss, ironically enough, is when the Japanese had been driven from their communities and it is their American neighbors who are left to deal with their absence and loss.  As they recollect memories of their displaced Japanese neighbors, only then do we get a sense as to who these people were and the impact they had on those around them.

I feel that Otsuka really missed an opportunity by choosing to tell an anonymous and faceless story.  Without some figures to latch on to, we fail to form any kind of connection with these women and their ill-fated lives.  I feel nothing would have been lost and so much more would have been gained had she decided to focus on three or four individual women and allowed us to follow each of their separate journeys.  We would have been able to hope, dream, despair, and mourn with them as they tried to navigate a world that was often cruel, unforgiving, and unfair.  Instead, we got Polaroids rather than a movie.  We got one-dimensional versus 3D.  We got an indistinguishable group and not a living, breathing person.

The title of this book refers to what these women had to leave behind.  Instead, it might have been nicer to focus on what these women carried with them: not just a lifetime of pain and hurt and sorrow, but also an abundance of hope and honor and resilience.  These women slaved and birthed and suffered and endured because to do otherwise would have brought dishonor to their family and to themselves.  Former hi-tech executive and mentor, Peter Strople wrote, “Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.”  I am grateful for Julie Otsuka for bringing the stories of the “picture brides” to light and although this particular book didn’t resonate with me, these women deserve to have their stories heard so that their legacy is not confined to the written page, but rather should live on within our hearts.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife

Robert Goolrick (Adult Fiction)

Ralph Truitt was fifty-four years old, rich, and alone.  He had been alone for twenty years and if the loneliness didn’t kill him, then another year in a bleak and barren Wisconsin winter might.  So, he placed an ad in the Chicago paper: “Country businessman seeks reliable wife.  Compelled by practical, not romantic reasons.  Reply by letter.”  He received many responses, but it was Catherine Land’s letter that he would choose.  He had read it so many times, he knew it by heart.  It was the first sentence that piqued his interest: “I am a simple honest woman.”  But letters can be deceiving and all this “simple honest woman” wanted—ever wanted—was to acquire both love and money.  Catherine would not live without some portion of both and Ralph Truitt was the ticket to her dream.  With a beautiful face and a sympathetic backstory, she was well on her way of inheriting a vast fortune…unless Ralph Truitt had other plans.

A Reliable Wife is one of those books that if you don’t stick with it, you would simply give up on it and unapologetically mark it as “Did Not Finish”.  With its foreboding and depressing backdrop of a 1907 Wisconsin winter, to its flawed and morally corrupt characters, to its underlying themes of lust and sexual fantasies, it really takes a herculean effort to weed through all of the debauchery and depression.  Thankfully, a nice story twist about midway through the book rewards those who stick it out and marks the beginning of several plot turns that will keep the reader’s interest and make the remaining scenes of lust and unrequited passion a little more forgivable.

The story centers on three main characters: Ralph Truitt, Catherine Lane, and Tony Moretti (Ralph’s illegitimate son).  All three do their fair share of whining and complaining and mourning a past that is lost and hating themselves for who they might have been.  Interestingly, I found Tony’s character the most sympathetic of the three, although Goolrick paints him as the antagonist.  He is the only one who truly deserves to feel betrayed and abandoned and can safely shroud himself in the term “victim”.  Don’t get me wrong, all three have their reasons to mope and feel wronged by life, but only one trophy can be awarded and I don’t give out participation ribbons so Tony gets the prize.

Robert Goolrick gives us a tale of regret and remorse and poses the question of how far would someone go in order to make a person love them?  I enjoyed this work far more than his book Heading Out to Wonderful, which I only gave 3/5 stars.  Unlike the latter, A Reliable Wife felt consistent all the way to the end and proved to be a suspenseful and compelling read.

I’ll end this review with four important takeways that I learned from A Reliable Wife: 1) If you live in Wisconsin, get out of Dodge before the first snowflake falls.  Winter marks the beginning of crazy season and you’re apt to either kill yourself, kill your family, kill yourself and your family (not in that order), or maim yourself (and possibly your family); 2) If your mother is a fanatical religious zealot, chances are you are going to grow up to be a hot mess; 3) A promise is a promise.  No matter how ridiculous, immoral, unethical, or illegal the promise is, you have to keep it.  No backing out.; and 4) Money doesn’t bring you happiness.  No matter how good looking you are, well educated, worldly, well-spoken.  It doesn’t matter.  You are going to be miserable so just pin that badge to your chest and wear it proudly.  So take a lesson from Ralph, Catherine, and Tony, just live a poor life in the tropics with a good therapist and don’t ever, EVER, make any promises.  You can thank me later.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill

A. Manette Ansay (Adult Fiction)

There are many ways to describe Ellen Grier: wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, caregiver, teacher.  All of these different roles and yet Ellen still feels incomplete…invisible almost.  She had been happy in Illinois in their rented house, but after her husband lost his job, she and her family are back in their hometown of Holly’s Field, Wisconsin and living with her in-laws at 512 Vinegar Hill—a harsh, loveless, and cold home filled with secrets.  She wants to be happy, but finds herself drowning under a sea of hopelessness and despair.  Can Ellen save herself and the ones she loves before Vinegar Hill consumes them all?

Vinegar Hill is an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  I’ve read several of her recommendations and often found them to be “hit” or “miss”.  This book is clearly a “miss”.  On the back cover, a review from Washington Post Book World calls it “Sweet, tender, and chilling.”  After reading this and several other critics’ comments printed on the book, I’m wondering if I actually read the same novel that they did.  Sweet?  Tender?  Vinegar Hill is the type of book that would make Edgar Allan Poe pause and say, “Wow!  Now THAT’S dark!”  This is a depressing, depraved, and disturbing story devoid of purpose, value, or meaning.  We’re introduced to several generations of individuals whose intolerance, callousness, cruelty, meanness and spite are clearly hereditary.  It’s an endless cycle of verbal and physical abuse with a skosh of religious hallucinations and psychological delusions thrown in for interest.  Ellen’s daughter, Amy, “buries” her “dead” dolls in shoeboxes; her husband, James, sees his children as the personification of Halloween with their skeletal hands and sunken ghostly eyes; and her elderly and bitter mother-in-law, Mary-Margaret, has dreams of her deceased twin infants growing back inside of her.  THIS is sweet and tender?  The Chicago Tribune even called Vinegar Hill “one of the year’s best books.”  I’m absolutely speechless.  I found the characters unpleasant and unsympathetic, religious judgements are frivolously tossed out as if they were beads at Mardi Gras, intelligence is scorned and vilified, and helplessness is encouraged and celebrated.

When Ellen sought advice from her fellow co-worker, she was told, “No one gets used to anything, they just get numb.”  After a while, with the constant derisions and disparagements, I too became numb and found myself eagerly counting down the pages until I could finally close the covers of this book and walk—or actually run—away from Vinegar Hill and all of its inhabitants…never to look back again.

Rating: 2/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Cradle by Patrick Somerville

The Cradle

The Cradle  

Patrick Somerville (Adult Fiction)

It’s 1997.  Matt and Marissa Bishop are expecting their first child.  In her eighth month of pregnancy, Marissa suddenly asks Matt to find her something.  Not a certain brand of pickles or obscure flavor of ice cream, but a cradle.  Her cradle.  The one that she used when she was a baby and that was stolen from her home many years ago.  Flash forward ten years and Renee Owen, a former children’s author, is preparing to send her son off to serve in the military in Iraq.  She counts down the days to his departure as she counts the white notecards on her bulletin board—cards that represent a book of poetry that longs for completion.  Both Matt and Renee are on a path where they will discover that secrets are powerful things and have the ability to either rip a family apart or make the shared fabric even stronger.

I’ve found that when books have two central characters with alternating story lines, there is always one that stands apart and tends to be more interesting and compelling.  The Cradle is no exception.  We follow the individual stories of Matt and Renee and from early on, Matt’s story is definitively the deeper and more developed of the two (out of fourteen chapters in the book, Matt is featured in ten).  Renee’s inclusion in the book seemed superfluous and the parts featuring her were a needless drag on the story’s pace.  Deciding to give Renee equal billing (or close to it) in this story was unfortunate.  Her inclusion didn’t add much to the story line and her contribution was more of a weak supporting character rather than a central, standalone figure.

The Cradle is clearly Matt’s story and the struggles he faces when dealing with his past while trying to understand his future.  Throughout the book, Matt is all about what matters.  Family matters.  Things matter.  His quest for his wife’s childhood heirloom not only puts him in direct contact with several strange and unforgettable people, but it also allows him the opportunity to begin realizing what a family is and what having a family really means.  And in the end, to Matt, those are the things that matter most.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

 

A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

A Virtuous Woman

A Virtuous Woman  

Kaye Gibbons (Adult Fiction)

Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes is forty when he marries Ruby Pitt Woodrow.  Jack is twice Ruby’s age, skinny, and homely, but despite his drawbacks, he loves Ruby unconditionally and promises to take care of her.  After suffering a tormented marriage to a brutal drifter, Ruby longs for stability and security and accepts Jack’s proposal of marriage.  Such is the story of two very different people who transcend both economic worth and social status in order to make a marriage work.

Gibbons gives us a simple story about a man and a woman whose devotion for one another is uncomplicated, unwavering, and unbounded.  Jack and Ruby’s love is quiet and kind and both derive a satisfying and greatly needed comfort from their marriage.  A Virtuous Woman is a pleasant read and flows along at a relaxed pace—alternating narration between Jack and Ruby.  Sadly, this book barely breaks the surface and fails to give the reader an opportunity to emotionally bond with either the story or to its characters.  Gibbons succeeds in providing a big-picture view of a bittersweet relationship between two broken people, but the story could have been far richer had Gibbons further fleshed out the complicated feelings and effects associated with infertility, terminal illness, and bereavement.

Jack and Ruby’s unlikely relationship reminds us that love need not be complicated or blind.  Sometimes, just having someone there offering you acceptance, kindness, and peace is enough.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Joy in the Morning

Joy in the Morning

Betty Smith (Adult Fiction)

            “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

                                    —Psalm 30:5

 Carl Brown and Annie McGairy are young and deeply in love.  Just past her 18th birthday, Annie travels from her home in New York to the Midwest to join her beloved in marriage.  Much to their mutual surprise, Carl and Annie’s first year proves to be unexpectedly difficult.  Carl is attending the university studying law and holding down several jobs while Annie tries to adapt to her new surroundings without the security and familiarity of friends and family.  Together, through lean times and unforeseen events, they must rely on their faith and love to pull them through.

What I admire most about Smith is that she gives us a strong, witty, and self-assured female character without diminishing her male counterpart.  All too often we see one character being lowered for the sake of elevating the other.  Despite their differences in education and social standing, Carl and Annie view each other as equals and share a mutual respect and passionate devotion for one another.  This alone is refreshing to see in a novel.

Set in 1927, Smith presents us with a small university town populated with principled (albeit flawed) people who all share a strong work ethic, solid moral compass, and innate desire to be decent, kind, and fair to their fellow man.  Her stories are charming and heartwarming without being overly sentimental or trite. A truly uplifting book that focuses on the goodness of humanity rather than its faults and follies.

Rating: 4/5