Thoughts: Wave, by Sonali Derinayagala

Calling this a book review feels wrong somehow, for how can one presume to "review" a book of someone else's grief? I could point out that Derinayagala favors commas where I feel that periods and sentence breaks would have improved the flow, or I could discuss how I expected Wave to be a story about a tsunami, not a personal story of loss. But none of those things really matter in the face of the raw emotion that Derinayagala pours out on every page of this short but impactful memoir.

Wave opens before the wave (the 2004 tsunami that struck Sri Lanka) had hit; Sonali Derinayagala, her parents, her husband, and her two young sons were vacationing from London over the holiday season. This brief, happy time stands in stark contrast to what follows: a few short, staccato chapters on Derinayagala's experience during the wave--leaping into a fleeing Jeep, losing track of her family members, latching onto a tree to avoid being swept out to sea--and the long, drawn-out accounts of what followed: looking for her family, only to eventually accept their deaths as inevitable; returning to her London home, where unused theater tickets awaited the family's return and sports equipment still carried the dirt of previous matches; visiting her childhood home, now cleared of her parents' belongings and rented to strangers.

Derinayagala thanks her therapist in her acknowledgements, along with so many others, for pushing her to recall her grief and therefore face it. The raw emotion of her memories cannot be overstated; Derinayagala does not shy away from any of her past actions, no matter how shameful they may seem in the light of day. Merely writing this all down may have functioned in the same therapeutic capacity; by publishing, and sharing, her story, Derinayagala has given us all the opportunity to face the fear of this grief--of losing our families, our loved ones, our sense of security in the world--through her experiences. Facing this dark side of our human nature and our capacity for grieving is not easy, but it brings to light the very human side of natural disasters in a way that no reader is likely to forget.


Wave | Sonali Derinayagala | Thorndike Press | August 2013 | Hardcover | 251 pages

Book Review: The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick

Originally published in the February 21st, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Matthew Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook) opens his sixth novel,The Good Luck of Right Now, with the death of Bartholomew Neil's mother--with whom the 38-year-old has lived his entire life. Suddenly, Bartholomew is on his own, uncertain of how to pay his bills, get a job, make friends or move on with his life. Somewhat illogically, he begins to write to Richard Gere, his mother's favorite actor, confiding in him about his uncertainty over what the future holds and his struggles with grief counseling. What begins as just one letter becomes a full-fledged one-sided friendship, as Bartholomew continues to write about the demise of his spiritual advisor, Father McNamee, his crush on the librarian he has dubbed "Girlbrarian" and his life goal of having a beer at a bar with a friend his own age.

As the novel unfolds, Quick builds a story with the most unlikely of characters, from a woman once abducted by aliens to a counselor in need of counseling and an angry man unable to get over the death of his cat. At their heart, they all struggle to find their way after their lives are shaken by events outside of their control. As Bartholomew's letters become more desperate and intense, this unlikely band of characters grows, contracts and learns to embrace the ups and downs life throws at us--finding comfort in the idea that the bad in life happens in order to make room for the good, and vice versa.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Jenn's Bookshelves
A Bookish Way of Life


The Good Luck of Right Now | Matthew Quick | Harper | February 2014 | Hardcover | 304 pages

If I Don't Read It, It Can't End: Saying Goodbye to the Wheel of Time

In all my years of reading, I never thought it would come to this: I've encountered a series so important to me, such a pivotal part of so much of my reading life, that I can't bring myself to read it through to the end.

Let me rewind:

My father gave me a copy of the first book in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World, when I was 11, eager for more fantasy novels after discovering the joy that was Redwall. I read the first few volumes of the Wheel of Time that year, before getting distracted by other, less daunting novels--but the books stayed with me for years.

Nearly a decade later, I studied abroad for a semester in Paris, living for the first time in my whole life without a television and with limited internet connectivity. Out came the Wheel of Time books for hours of affordable entertainment. I re-read the first on the flight across the Atlantic, the second a few weeks later, and scrambled to find the third at Shakespeare and Co or other English-speaking bookstores (I later gave up and just had my parents ship me copies from home). I finished the series--all 9,300 pages that were written at the time--in just under six months that semester.

In 2007, my father and I jointly mourned the death of Robert Jordan, and fretted over the direction of the series. We had 11 books of the promised dozen. Later that year, Tor announced that Brandon Sanderson would be completing the series, writing the twelfth and final book in three volumes. He would be working closely with Harriet McDougal, Jordan's wife and long-time editor of the series, they said. He would be working from Jordan's notes, they wrote.

In 2009, I started the series again from the beginning to prepare for the release of Sanderson's first volume of continuation, The Gathering Storm. It was one of the first reading projects I undertook after graduating from undergrad (free reading time, ya'll!). I read past my subway stop on more than one occasion. I read while I walked to work. I once ran face-first into someone on the subway stairs because I was trying to read while exiting the station during rush hour. Imagine my surprise when I looked up from book eight or nine or ten or thereabouts to find a baffled guy standing in front of me, holding his place in the first book. How I envied that he got to meet these characters for the first time that year.

I read the second volume of the promised 12th book, The Towers of Midnight, in two days. It was the first--and only--time I'd ever taken a sick day in order to keep reading (I was already going to be late to work that day, having stayed up until 3AM the day I bought the book to read it).

By all intents and purpose, I should have finished the 3rd volume in the 12th book--and true final volume in the series--in January 2013, when it was released. I bought it the day it came out, but much to his--and my--surprise, I let my husband take the first read (he's also a fan). And then when he finished it, I let other books and other projects come first, until three months had passed.

In March of that year, we went to a signing to hear Brandon and Harriet speak about the process of completing the series. I stood in line for upwards of three hours to meet these two authors who had meant so much to me in so many different places in my life. I read the first few hundred pages in line that night (I really wasn't exaggerating when I said I stood in line for hours), and promptly set the book down again when I got home.

Now it is practically March of 2014, and I'm still no further than I was a year ago. What is it about this book? These are the characters I know I love; the stories I want to see resolved; the battles that have been building for over 10,000 pages. But no matter what I do, or how much I enjoy the opening chapters (which I have now read three times), I can't keep reading. Of the 909 pages in this final volume, I have read 459 of them. I've read them more slowly than I've ever read a WoT book in the past; my burning desire to know what happens is wildly tempered by my even stronger desire not to say goodbye.

I've always been a believer in re-reading; my re-reads of this series alone are evidence of that. But once I know the end, really know the end, will I ever read the rest with the same gusto with which I first approached new volumes? Was re-reading Harry Potter really ever the same after reading that awful epilogue? Is it possible to find the same romance on the pages of Gone with the Wind once you know how Scarlet's battles will end?

This time, I will keep reading--slowly, I'm sure, but I will finish it. I will find out what becomes of Rand, and Min, and Aviendha, of the Aiel, and the Ogiers, and the Seanchan. I will learn the fate of the White Tower, and the Black Tower. The Dragon may or may not be reborn. I will finally turn the 11,916th page of the series that has meant more to me than I could possibly put in one rambling, somewhat-incohesive post.

And then? Then I'll start at the beginning and work my way back through all 14 books again. And again. And again.

The Last Feminist to Read Lean In, Perhaps?

Am I the last self-described feminist to read Lean In? Possibly. The book has been reviewed, debated, reviewed and debated again, featured in the New York Times who knows how many times, etc. etc. etc. It has sparked debates about the importance of stay-at-home mothers (and fathers), debates on the glass ceiling, debates on how to "have it all." It's even inspired a new line of stock photography.

That's a lot for a book that's just about to celebrate its first birthday--even if the author does happen to be one of the most powerful women at one of the most powerful and recognized companies in the world. Sandberg is a powerhouse, and her successes are only further proof of her passion--as is her book.

I'll admit, I was skeptical in starting this (which is why, perhaps, I'm so late to the party). Sheryl Sandberg works at Facebook, for crying out loud. She has a career, not a job, and kids. And money. And opportunity. What could she possibly teach me?

The thing that she can teach me, it turns out, is that she can teach me. That any woman (or man), at any stage of her (or his) career, can stand to take a step back and reconsider how--and from whom--we learn, and how we can adjust accordingly. 

As The Last Feminist to Read Lean In, I don't plan on offering up a review of this book. There's no shortage of those already in the world--but actually, that's part of what lead me to write this post in the first place. Because the number of reviews that turn their nose down at this book because Sandberg is rich; or because she sites Marissa Meyer as an example of a woman making her own choices and standing by them, no matter the critics; or because the book is "obvious"? That number is downright disheartening, especially when faced with the fact that Sandberg is careful to address each and every one of these potential problems in her work.

At the end of the day, the biggest thing this particular feminist took away from Lean In was not that Sandberg has all the answers, or the key to breaking the glass ceiling that may or may not exist. It was not that there is a right or wrong decision at any given place in a woman's career. It was not even that there is a solution to all of our gender inequality problems, which hurt men as much as women.

It was this: only by seizing every opportunity, and evaluating it in the context of our own lives, needs, wants, and desires, can we continue to grow, and thrive, and push for change. In order to get anywhere, we all have to be willing to put ourselves out there--and willing to work towards change together, rather than fighting to ensure that "change" meets our definition of what is "right."

And I think that's a pretty powerful message.

Book Review: The Secret of Raven Point, by Jennifer Vanderbes

Jennifer Vanderbes' World War II-era novel, The Secret of Raven Point, comes at the subject of war from a different angle--not only is the main action set in Italy, rather than the more popular France, but the story is told from the point of view of Juliet, a young nurse whose main motivation to join up was not romantic love, as in so many war novels told from a female point of view, but for the love of her brother, who has gone missing in action.

Because Vanderbes' novel centers on a young girl, it is, in its own way, a coming of age novel--no 17-year-old can experience the horrors of war that Juliet experiences without finding herself forced into adulthood, perhaps prematurely:
"Juliet recalled how many fantasties of adulthood she once had, the elaborate list of dramatic feats she felt destined to accomplish. All those dreams now seemed decadent and ludicrous. She thought of the boy on the operating table, and of Liberata. What had they imagined for their futures? What would happen to them? Who would take care of them? ... That's what adulthood was bringing her, she thought: pragmatism, heartlessness. She sensed something within her eroding, something she would never restore."
True to her predictions, Juliet does not restore the innocence of youth she feels she lost during the war--but instead morphs into a sensitive, daring, and ambitious woman with plans and ideas of her own. This growth, combined with a nuanced and heartfelt depiction of the war itself, ultimately saves The Secret of Raven Point from itself; a few plot issues that could have been distracting--the "secret" of Raven Point is never truly explored, and Juliet has a strange romance with a doctor that never feels fully fleshed out--are easier to overlook in light of Vanderbes' success in driving home the myriad ways in war changes those who participate in it.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Nomad Reader
Publisher's Weekly


The Secret of Raven Point | Jennifer Vanderbes | Scribner | Hardcover | February 2014 | 320 pages

Valentine's Day: A Different Take on Romance

Valentine's Day is upon us, and the shmoopiest of holidays falling on a Friday is bound to make the pink-and-red heart-shaped celebrations even more... um, festive, shall we? I've never been a huge celebrator this day, but I do appreciate the nudge to step back and reconsider romance each year. This year, my thoughts turned some recent fiction that tackles the ever-tricky subject of love in less-than-usual ways:

The Lover's Dictionary, by David Levithan: This novel little book is written as a series of alphabetical dictionary definitions, each one defining a different aspect of love and romance--from those first glimpses of love at first sight to the heartbreak that comes with infidelity. Read my full review, in dictionary form, of The Lover's Dictionary--and be sure to consider this one if you appreciate writing that challenges the standard definition of the word "novel."

Marry Me, by Dan Rhodes: Rhodes' collection of startingly short fiction--some of the stories here are shorter than this blog post--comes at the subject of marriage through over 70 different perspectives. Most of the relationships here are dysfunctional ones, but they combine to paint an insightful, and often humorous, depiction of marriage at its finest--and most infamous--moments. Read my full review of Marry Me.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: I already declared this to be one of my favorite books of 2014, and I stand by that assertion. Offill's novel is short and told in a series of clipped vignettes, often interspersed with quotes on philosophy and love. These short bits combine to tell the mundane story of a marriage in crisis in the least mundane of ways. I'm still thinking about it weeks after turning the last page. Read my full review of Dept. of Speculation.

What unusual romance reads am I missing?

Book Review: Marry Me, by Dan Rhodes

Originally published in the January 28th, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Individually, the stories in Dan Rhodes's Marry Me tell of singular events related to marriage. In "Friends," a wife leaves her husband but asks to remain friends. "Carbon" is a proposal story, in which a man, unable to afford a diamond, substitutes a piece of carbon. Weddings form the center of "Goethe," in which a young woman mocks the absurdity of over-the-top weddings until she finds herself planning one of her own.

There are more than 75 stories in Rhodes's slim collection; the longest is three pages, the shortest even shorter than this review, but to assume the brevity of these tales limits their ability to convey big ideas about the institution of marriage is to fail to appreciate Rhodes's skill with flash fiction. The short form allows Rhodes to jump around, first to a marriage dissolving, then to a union forming, to a couple resigning themselves to each other, to a proposal refused. Though strange at first--it is nearly impossible to commit to any one character in less than a page--the clipped rhythm ultimately works, as the stories move from poignant to pathetic to humorous and back again, never letting the reader know what to expect next. On their own, each story is an interesting glimpse into a particular situation in a particular relationship; combined, the tales form a prism of the complicated, messy, hilarious, pathetic, wonderful, awful thing that is marriage.


Thoughts from other bookworms:


Marry Me | Dan Rhodes | Europa Editions | January 2014 | Paperback | 170 pages

Book Review: A Well-Tempered Heart, by Jan Philipp-Sendker

Originally published in the January 28th, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Jan Philipp-Sendker's debut novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, introduced readers to Julia, a young woman who travels to Burma to try to find her missing father. A Well-Tempered Heart takes Julia back to Burma nearly a decade later. This time, however, she is s
earching not for a missing person, but a better understanding of herself--and the woman's voice she has mysteriously started to hear in her head.

Thinking she is going insane, Julia revisits Burma as a last resort, hoping to spend time with her half-brother and clear her head. The voice warns her against the journey, fearing the secrets it may uncover. And uncover secrets it does, as Julia and her brother look not only to identify the woman speaking to Julia, but understand why she lingers in Julia's mind. Along the way, they learn of Burma's violent past, rife with civil wars and wounds that have not yet healed in the hearts of the Burmese people.

What sounds fantastical in our description is accepted with no raised eyebrows in Philipp-Sendker's Burma, where portents and signs are accepted as truth. In this world, so very different from the fast-paced Manhattan to which she is accustomed, Julia learns not only about the woman speaking to her, but about the power of intuition, forgiveness and love--as well as second chances. What begins as a problem-solving quest becomes a journey of self-discovery, sure to resonate with anyone who has ever sought to reinvent oneself.


You might also like:
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan Philipp-Sendker


Thoughts from other bookworms:


A Well-Tempered Heart | Jan Philipp-Sendker | Other Press | January 2014 | Paperback | 400 pages

Book Review: Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs

It's finally here: Hollow City, the sequel to Ransom Rigg's creepy, imaginative debut, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Doesn't it feel like we've waited forever for this book?

Hollow City continues to the story of Jacob and his peculiar friends, picking up right where Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children left off, so before I continue, let me interject:

Those who haven't read the first in the series will want to go back and start at the beginning, as Riggs doesn't provide a lot of recap in the second volume (a welcome respite from other fantasy series that seem to spend the first 100 pages reminding you of what you've already read). 

Those who haven't read the first in the series may also want to stop reading here, for while I promise not to spoil Hollow City, I can't promise not to spoil Miss Peregrine's.

At the end of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Jacob and his peculiar friends were left fleeing their small island in Wales, leaving behind the relative safety of their loop to try to save their Miss Peregrine, who happens to be stuck in bird form and cannot transform back into a human, and the fate of the peculiar world in one fell swoop. The gang comes across a menagerie of talking animals; dodges bombs in the London Blitz; and encounters more peculiars in, well, the most peculiar of places.

Though the subject matter can sometime be a bit dark (there's something inherently terrifying about the Blitz, in my mind), the story is imbued with a kind of childish hope that keeps it from ever feeling too heavy. Jacob and Emma's romance evolves, and Jacob himself continues to question how--and if--he fits into this peculiar world. It's an interesting twist on the coming-of-age story, transporting a young teenager into a time and place that is not his own to force him to start questioning where he belongs, and it works.

And, as we've come to expect from the ever-imaginative Riggs, Hollow City combines morbidly fascinating vintage photographs with a healthy dose of monsters, villains and superpowers to continue the story of Miss Peregrine's peculiar children. Hollow City ends on, yes, another cliffhanger, but the second volume in the Miss Peregrine series should leave no one doubting whether or not the wait will be worth it.


View the delightfully strange trailers for Hollow City below:


Note: Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this title for review.
Hollow City | Ransom Riggs | Quirk Books | Hardcover | January 2014| 400 pages

Connu: Short Stories for You

More than one outlet declared 2013 the year for the return of the short story; the New York Times' January declaration that George Saunders' The Tenth of December was "the best book you'll read all year" just set the tone for a year of short story collection after short story collection.

And at the end of the year, Connu launched its iPhone beta, only further cementing 2013 as the year of the short story.

In 2011,Connu founders Susannah Lithi and Nithi Perian asked the question, "Is it possible to create a place where readers can feel like they have their fingers on the pulse of what's happening in fiction?"

The answer was Connu, a website and app that curates short story content reading for people on the go. Connu provides daily short stories to subscribers--but not just any stories. These are tales selected by the bestselling writers of today, giving readers a heads up for new talent to look for tomorrow. The stories range in length, content and style, but all are chosen to given readers a glimpse into the contemporary literature scene that can otherwise be completely overwhelming.

Story selections include Brandon Williams' "Last Fortune Cookie on Earth," selected by Susan Straight; Cindy House's "Girls Like You," selected by David Sedaris; and Daniel Lanza's "Hilmar," selected by Jonathan Lethem--among many, many others. I read most, if not all, of the stories sent my way, and have yet to come across one I haven't enjoyed.

Since it was launched in November of 2013, Connu has continued to expand; in addition to reading the stories selected, readers can now also listen to the stories read by their authors. iPhone users can download the Connu app in the iTunes store, and while there's no word yet on an Android version, Android (or... Windows phone?) users can still read the stories on the impressively mobile-friendly Connu website.

Download the iPhone app now, or read (or listen) online. And be sure to follow Connu on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr for updates from the team.


Disclaimer: I was an original backer of Connu's Kickstarter campaign, but have no affiliation with the company.  I just think it's pretty freaking cool.

Looking Ahead: February Books

I've got my eye on more February releases than I can possibly hope to read in one month (and a short month, at that!), but where would I be if I ever caught up on all the books I wanted to read? And so I'll keep adding more books to the mental list of "books-on-my-radar" and hoping that one day someone will just pay me to sit in my house and read all day:

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG, February 4): The publisher blurb for this begins, "If J.J. Abrams, Margaret Atwood, and Alan Weisman collaborated on a novel . . . it might be this awesome." That's a big claim, but if it lives up to the hype, it really will be awesome. The first in a planned trilogy, the second and third volumes are due to be published in 2014, so the wait won't be long.

Marshlands, by Matthew Olshan (FSG, February 4): An unnamed man is released from an unidentified military prison to a country he no longer recognizes as his own. As this novel moves backwards in time, the man's crimes are revealed--as is the haunting world of a country at war with its occupiers. I've already read this one, and while it's rather quiet, it resonates with our current political situation despite its lack of identifying details.

The Secret of Raven Point, by Jennifer Vanderbes (Scribner, February 4): World War II history promising a "war saga capturing the experiences of soldiers after the battles have ended." And told from the perspective of a woman? Yes, please.

Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux (FSG, February 4): The Millions Most Anticipated Books of 2014 article stated, "This smart novel’s central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words." What's not to love about that?

The Martian, by Andy Weir (Crown, February 11): One of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars is left behind by his crew... and will quickly become the first man to die on the surface of Mars. An interesting twist on our concept of "Martians," yes?

The News: A User's Manual, by Alain de Botton (Pantheon, February 11): Alain de Botton, founder of the School of Life (which has a corresponding book series worth checking out), tackles our obsession with the news in his latest work. In the age of the 24-hour-news cycle, this couldn't feel more relevant.

The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick (Harper, February 11): The author of The Silver Linings Playbook is back in an epistolary novel told entirely in letters to Richard Gere. The letter-writer, Bartholomew, starts his missives after the death of his mother--and just keeps going. I've already read this one, and while it's not what I think people will be expecting, it's heartfelt and engaging.

Bark: Stories, by Lorrie Moore (Knopf, February 25): I've never read Lorrie Moore, but after all the praise that has been heaped upon her, I don't plan to miss this collection.

Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li (Random House, February 25): Another one picked up from The Millions' list of 2014 titles, this one promises to be a literary dive into the whodunit--or rather, the "what really happened" and the "does it even matter." I love novels that turn the classic crime story on its head, and this fits that bill in more ways than one.

Looking Back: January Highlights

Can you believe we are already an entire month into 2014? And in these parts, we're one month, two polar vortexes, and several inches of snow into the year. The cold weather meant the dog didn't get a lot of walks this month, but I certainly got a lot of reading done. Here are a few of my favorites:

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This book only came out on January 28th, and I'm already calling it one of my favorites of the year. Told as a series of vignettes and interspersed with quotes on life, philosophy and love, the novel's structure is unique--but that allows it to tell an otherwise mundane story of marriage, parenthood and infidelity in a way that feels entirely fresh. Read my full review of Dept. of Speculation, and make sure to get yourself a copy sooner than later.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, by Rachel Cantor: I first heard of this book on the Twitter somewhere, and I'm so glad I acted on whatever tip it was that pointed me towards it. This is an odd little book, set in a world of fast food chains and corporations that is hard to grasp at first. Once I let go of my expectations and decided to just go along for the ride, I found a heartfelt, if quirky, tale of love, family, and, you know, saving the world. Downright original.

Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs: If you've read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, you already know you're in for a treat with Riggs' second novel of the Miss Peregrine series (and if you haven't read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, get on that, stat). Hollow City continues the story of Jacob and his peculiar friends as they flee the monsters that threaten the entire world, and, like the first volume in the series, combines thoroughly entertaining storytelling with a collection of vintage photographs. And yes, it does end in another cliffhanger, so we can (hopefully) expect more from Riggs in this vein.

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd: I've long been a fan of Kidd's writing (if you haven't read The Secret Life of Bees, set aside whatever you think you know of the book and go on and read it). The Invention of Wings was picked as Oprah's latest 2.0-or-whatever-it's-called book club pick, which means it doesn't need too much more pushing to find its way into readers hands, but let me just add: If you tend to steer away from Oprah's picks, let this be the exception to that rule. Kidd's retelling of the historical story of two abolitionists in 19th century America is heartfelt and important, and, like her past work, generally incredible.