Audiobook: Today Will Be Different

todaywillbedifferentby Maria Semple
Read by Kathleen Wiljoite
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Content: There’s two f-bombs, and assorted other milder swearing. There’s also some uncomfortable domestic issues, and thematically it skews, well, adult. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

I loved the way this book began:

Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.

It’s such a gloriously low bar for everything. I can completely relate.

Eleanor is trying to make it through each day. Some days are more successful than others. And on this day — the book takes place in 24 hours, with some flashbacks — she will be challenged. Her 8-year-old son, Timby, will fake being sick to get out of being bullied at school. She will discover her husband told his office he’s on vacation, which he is most assuredly not. She will be reminded — strongly — of her estranged sister. She will get a concussion and steal someone else’s keys. It will not be a winner of a day, by any standards, but Eleanor will be — hopefully — better for it.

I think the secret to this one, at least for me, was listening to it.  The narrator was AMAZING. So good in fact, that I want to hunt out other books she’s read. I think she captured Eleanor perfectly, and she pulled me into the narrative. I’m pretty sure it was because of the narrator that I came to love Eleanor and look forward to hearing more about this crazy day (and her crazy past) she was having. (Maybe I would have liked it in print… Stemple is a good writer; the story is entertaining and made me think as well. Plus there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments as well.)

Sometimes I like adult books. This was definitely one of those times.

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Leave Me

leavemeby Gayle Forman
First sentence: “Maribeth Klein was working late, waiting to sign off on the final page proofs of the December issue, when she had a heart attack.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a handful — maybe a dozen? — f-bombs as well as some other mild swearing. The subject matter is more mature, than Forman’s other books, and it’ll be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Maribeth figures she’s living the life: she’s got a Great Editing Job at a fashion magazine, she’s got a beautiful pair of twins (that she and her husband were happy to have). She’s managing to juggle work, parenting, home life, a marriage. It’s what women are Supposed To Do, right? Then, at age 44, she has a heart attack. It sends her into a spiral, first because she’s trying to heal and no one’s giving her the support she wants/needs, and then because she just can’t seem to Care anymore. So she does what so many overworked women dream of doing: she leaves.

Nominally, she heads to Pittsburgh because, being adopted, she doesn’t know her genetic history and she is looking for her birth mother. But really, her life is too much for her to handle and she wants to try something else on for a change. She goes cash-only, she sheds her name, she wants to start over. And it seems that’s what she needs: through making new friends, taking a step away from everything, she figures things out.

When I first started this, I thought it would completely wreck me. Being an overworked and underappreciated working mother is something I definitely can identify with. But, rather than finding it difficult to get through, I found myself drawn into Maribeth’s story, her history, her fears and hopes, and the ways in which she was carrying her grief and anger. I was pulled into the characters that Forman created for Maribeth to befriend in Pittsburgh. I appreciated that everyone was complex and multi-faceted; no one was wholly in the wrong, including Maribeth herself.

I truly enjoyed it, which is unusual for me when it comes to adult books. Perhaps it’s because Forman is generally a YA writer, and this just felt like a more mature YA — a focus on character and moving the plot forward, rather than just pages and pages of, well, boring drivel. Either way, this is definitely one to check out.

Audio book: The Last Original Wife

lastoriginalwifeby Dorothea Benton Frank
Read by: Robin Miles
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Content: There’s a lot of mild swearing and a couple of f-bombs. And some off-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Leslie Carter is the last original wife among her husband Wesley’s super successful Atlanta set. One was gone to divorce, another to death. And their husbands — Wesley’s friends — are marrying girls half their age. And Lesley has had enough. Actually, the “Barbies” are just a catalyst for what Leslie has been suspecting for a while: Wesley doesn’t really love her, he’s just still married to her because it’s easy and convenient. So, after a brawl in the club dining room between two of the new wives, Leslie up and leaves Wesley. She heads back to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina and her brother — who, because Wesley’s a homophobe, she hasn’t seen in years — and takes up with an old high school flame, and learns that by discovering her roots, she finds herself again.

So. I wanted to like this one. And I did at first. Wesley was such a hideous character, so sexist and clueless, right from the start that it was easy to hate him and root for Leslie to leave him. But, that said, I got really tired really fast of all the descriptions of what they ate and drank (I really don’t care which wine is good with which meal) and what they wore (so she chose a red dress for the wedding of her best friend’s daughter, so what?). I got really tired of the ending — after Leslie decided to leave Wesley and they went through therapy, the book went on for another few hours. What was the point? (She needed a Happily Ever After with a Good Man). And it was so slut-shaming. I want to read the book from Cornelia’s– she’s the second wife of one of Wesley’s friends — point of view; she was so much a caricature that I couldn’t take her seriously. (And I got so very tired of Leslie’s judgement. She wasn’t perfect either.) I won’t even start on the whole Canadian-izing of the Southern accent. No Southerner says hoose for house (it’s hOWse). (The Canadian/Upper Midwest came out with out and about too…) Drove me nuts. Oh, and then there’s the math: Leslie was turning 60 and she’d been married for 30 years (it was a shotgun wedding, and her oldest was almost 30). HOWEVER, she got pregnant in college and had to drop out before she graduated. WTH? The math doesn’t add up.

The thing it did have going for it? A great sense of place. Frank knows Charleston and knows how to write about the town in a way that made me want to go. I could picture the warm, lazy summer, and the walks down the roads. I almost wanted to see it for myself. And I’ll admit that I didn’t bail on this one; I did want to see Leslie’s story all the way through, even if I did get impatient with it.

So, while it was annoying, it wasn’t awful.

Audio book: The Buried Giant

buriedgiantby Kazuo Ishiguro
Read by: David Horovitch
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Content: There’s some violence and mild sexual elements. But, no worse than any Tolkein book. In fact, if you’ve made it through LOTR, you will probably really like this one.

Axl and Beatrice have had a long, good life. Or, at least as much as they can remember. They live in a cave dwelling in Britain, in the time after the Romans left and Arthur’s peace with the Saxons is waning. They’re not quite content, and so they determine that they need to head to a nearby village to see their son — whom they only can barely remember having — because he’s anxiously waiting for them.

They have no idea how their journey will go, or the people they will meet (an elder Sir Gawain among them, much to my delight), and how it will all change them.

I’m not sure how much more of the actual plot I want to divulge. Much like LOTR (which this strongly reminded me of), the plot is less important than the journey. Axl and Beatrice’s journey — though we never really got inside Beatrice’s head, which disappointed me — was a grand one, like Odysseus, or Frodo. The people the met, the friendships they made, the emotional journey they took as well as the physical one all had a mythological quality to it.

I’m sure you can find a lot of deeper meaning in the story as well. But for me, listening to it on my way to and from Dallas (the narrator was excellent, once I got used to his cadence), it was more a long oral narrative, a story to be heard by the firelight over several nights, a story to capture the imagination and to be swept up in.

Which means it’s being told by a master storyteller. And I loved every minute.

The Bitch in the House

26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage
edited by Cathi Hanauer
First sentence: “This book was born out of anger – specifically, my own domestic anger, which stemmed from a combination of guilt, resentment, exhaustion, naivete, and the chaos of my life at the time.”
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Content: A lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. Talking about sex, but no actual sex. Probably not interesting to teens, since most of these women are in their mid- to late-20s and older. It’d be in the sociology section of the bookstore.

I got a text from M a while back, with a picture of this, saying (essentially) that she really needed to talk to someone about this. So, I picked it up, just to see what it was.

It is precisely what the cover said it was: 26 women, all employed, some with families, expressing anger at their life situation. I get some of that anger: a lot of the pressure on women is societal. We were told we could have it all, but no one bothered to tell the men that they needed to help out. (Which, truly, seemed the biggest complaint.)

I did find myself identifying with some of the essays: life is tough, and I can see how it not going the way you think it should would equal anger. But, I can’t just muster that; I’m much too tired. I bailed about 2/3 of the way through; I found that I just didn’t care about upper-middle class women’s whining that they can’t have a job and a family and a relationship and everything else. So what? There are people out there who are trying to make ends meet without the help of a nanny.

That’s a bit harsh.

It’s also 12 years out of date, and I felt that time lapse. Maybe things haven’t changed all that much. Maybe they have changed a bit, and maybe not always for the better. But, I’m tired of anger. (I know it’s useful. I’m just tired of it.)

In the end, it just wasn’t the book I wanted to be reading.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter

by Eugenia Kim
First sentence: “I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.”
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Content: It’s pretty long and involved, and some off-screen sex (both married and extra-marital). It’d be in the adult section of the bookstore.

Najin Han was born in 1910, soon after the Japanese invasion (I suppose) of Korea.The daughter of a talented calligrapher, she was supposed to be raised in the traditional manner: to be a servant to men, without the education or opportunities men have.

But, because her mother was Christian, and because Najin was curious, she ended up having more opportunities than she “should” have. She went to school, learned both English and Japanese.She spent time in the exiled court (thanks to some terrific maneuvering from her mother and a well-placed aunt). She got trained to be a teacher and a midwife. So when her husband — an arranged marriage, of course — goes to America for theological training and she gets stuck in Korea, she has Options.

Based on her parent’s lives, Kim writes a fascinating story about life in early-20th century Korea. There was much I didn’t know, from the way the Japanese took over the Korean culture, trying to suppress it to the fact that Christianity was in Korea fairly early on.

I enjoyed reading this one, though there were times that I skimmed — I didn’t care when Kim switched into other points of view; Najin’s story was the one I was most interested in — but for the most part I found this to be a fascinating portrait of a country and time we don’t hear much about.

Audiobook: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce
Read by: Jim Broadbent
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Content: There are a couple of characters with foul mouths and swear quite a bit (including multiple f-bombs), but that’s it. It’s also a book about aging, life, death, and marriage, so I’m not sure how interested younger people would be in it. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I don’t really know what inspired me to pick this one up; I suppose it’s because I’ve heard a lot about it over the months it’s been out, but I guess I needed a journey story, because this one hit home,

Harold Fry is 65 years old and has just retired from 45 years as a salesman at a local brewery. He doesn’t have much to do, and he and his wife, Maureen, haven’t had much of a marriage in 20 years. So, mostly he just sits around. So, when he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a colleague he hasn’t seen in 20 years, that she’s dying of cancer, he sets out to mail a letter back to her. And then just keeps walking.

A girl in a garage inspires Harold: perhaps if he walks the 600 miles from his home in Kingsbrige to were Queenie is in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, perhaps she will live.

What Harold didn’t count on was how much his walk would change his life.

I completely empathized with all the characters in the book. Sometimes, Harold struck home, with his need to do something to feel productive. Sometimes, it was Maureen, with her frustrations about the stagnation of their marriage — though there’s more to that story, which is slowly revealed over the course of the book. And it was a testament to the kindness of strangers. Harold started out spending money and staying at hotels, but over the course of the 87 days he walked, he increasingly became more dependent on other people. And they didn’t disappoint; sure, there are unkind people, but Joyce seems to be affirming that most people in this world are decent.

It did get a bit meandering in the middle, but I was so enthralled with Broadbent’s narration, I didn’t mind. He was spot-on with all the characters, from the Scottish nuns in the hospice to Maureen’s irritation, to the 70-something next door neighbor, Rex, who turns out to be a gem.

I loved it.