I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb was recommended to me a while back, as you’ll see in a moment. It’s the second book I’ve read for the 2014 TRB Pile Challenge. (Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which was phenomenal, was the first.)

About the Book:

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb (http://erinreads.com)Dominick Birdsey has a lot going on. His twin brother, Thomas, is mentally unstable. He’s still in love with his ex-wife, Dessa, and not much into his current (and much younger) girlfriend, Joy. The only family he really has to turn to is Ray, the stepfather he’s been severely at odds with since the day Ray came into Dominick’s life. On top of all that is Dominick’s lifelong quest to discover who his real father was, something his mother withheld from him even on her deathbed. She did give him a copy of her father’s life story, written in Italian, before she passed away, but the woman Dominick hired to translate it into English disappeared shortly thereafter, taking the manuscript with her.

What unfolds over the next 897 pages is a multifaceted story. Events swirl around Dominick. Things happen to him. Memories wash over him. Surprises and coincidences ambush him. And through it all, he struggles to become a different person — maybe not perfect, but at least better — than he is when his story opens.

My Thoughts:

There’s a bit of a sentimental story behind why I Know This Much Is True found its way onto my reading list. My friend and I used to visit a particular favorite elementary school teacher after we’d moved on to high school, but after graduation we lost touch with him. After college, we found an old address for him and mailed a card that included our email addresses, hoping somehow our card would find him and we’d hear from him again. Somehow, it did, and he sent us an email. It was the last thing we heard from him before he passed away. In it, he recommended I Know This Much Is True. That was in 2008. I’ve avoided Lamb’s novels because of the mixed reviews I’ve heard of She’s Come Undone, but I decided it was time I at least gave this one a chance.

I Know This Much Is True is one of those rare novels that actually deserves to be almost 900 pages long. Anything less, and Dominick’s inner journey would have felt too compressed to be believable. As it is, the situations that pelt him throughout the story seem improbable when taken together. Yet somehow, Lamb manages to make it all hang together. He also manages to walk Dominick, if not through a soul-deep transformation, at least to the edge of it. Enough that you know he’s going to be ok, that you can close the book without worrying about what will happen to him.

Lamb does an excellent job capturing Dominick’s voice. I can still hear his pessimistic sarcasm, his quick temper, the dialogue in his head. The novel is written in the first person, so most of what we get is Dominick’s perception of the other characters and of himself. Yet Lamb also manages to show, through words and gestures and reactions, how maybe Dominick’s perspective isn’t 100 percent accurate. And gradually, reluctantly, Dominick begins to come around, too.

By no means did Lamb neglect the other characters to pour all his attention into Dominick. The novel is peopled with an impressively large and very real cast of supporting characters. They include Joy the girlfriend, Dessa the ex-wife, Ray the stepfather, Thomas the brother, Doc Patel the psychologist, Lisa the social worker, Leo the best friend, and Ralph the figure from Dominick’s past. Tertiary characters get enough attention that you actually remember them. And Lamb does a masterful job fitting all these characters into Dominick’s memories, too. Reaching all the way back to childhood, these memories show not only Dominick’s life, but the lives of those whose stories touched (and continue to touch) his. Far from being static, these tangential characters become grown-up versions of themselves, too.

I Know This Much Is True is certainly not a happy book. There are a lot of terrible things that happen in it. There’s plenty of sadness and hardship. But it’s the kind of story you’re glad you stuck with when at last you reach the final page. It was just the right balance for me, and I’m so happy I made it part of my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge list.

The Verdict: Excellent

If long, sustained stories are your thing, I think you’d like I Know This Much Is True. I thought it was very well done and was pleasantly surprised by how absorbed in the story I became and how much I liked it in the end. I have The Hour I First Believed on my shelf and am now curious to see if that one is as good!

Your Turn!

What book that you’ve read for sentimental purposes turned out to be excellent?

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Sunday Salon: It’s Readathon Time!

by Erin on April 20, 2014

The Sunday Salon (badge)

Happy Easter, if that’s your cup of tea! If not, then happy Sunday.

A week from yesterday is a gloriously fun day: Dewey’s Read-a-Thon! That’s 24 hours of reading (by those who can go that long without sleep, at least) by participants around the world. The event happens twice a year, in the spring and fall, and is one of my favorite activities. No readathon would be complete without a prep post, so here we go!

First Up: The Books

I love perusing my shelves in preparation for a day spent reading. In the past, I’ve assembled towering stacks. I never make it through more than a couple of books, though, so this year I’m going easy on myself. Here’s the pile:

Readathon Spring 2014 Stack

Ella Minnow Pea is on my TBR Pile Challenge list, and The ACB with Honora Lee is for review. I’m guessing they’ll both be quick reads, which I have learned from experience is a good thing when you’re going to spend hours reading. I’m already just over halfway through The Cunning Man, so hopefully I’ll be able to finish that one up as well. If I miraculously make it through those three, I have plenty more on my shelves I can grab! I’ll also have an audiobook going, though which one I haven’t yet decided. Either Eleanor & Park or The Girl of Fire and Thorns. That way I can “read” while I do the dishes, quilt, or take a walk.

Next Up: The Plans

This is the first readathon in several years for which I’ve been able to clear my schedule completely. It’s also the first time I’ll be participating from the west coast instead of the east coast. That means the event starts at — *gasp* — 5 am! My husband is doing it with me (another first), which adds some extra motivation. We may or may not actually be up and reading at 5, and no way will I be able to stay up until 5 am on Sunday, but I’m planning to make it through at least two thirds of the event! And very much looking forward to it, too.

I anticipate plenty of reading and listening interspersed with some cheerleading fun and some mini-challenge goodness. I’ll share updates in a single event-day post here on Erin Reads. I’m quite excited to get to throw myself into the event again. Woo!

What about you?

Are you readathon-ing? Let me know so I can stop by and say hi! If you’re not but you’d like to, go sign up!

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I received a copy of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

About the Book:

Mrs Lincoln's RivalMrs. Lincoln’s Rival begins in the days leading up to the 1860 presidential election. Kate Chase, daughter of the thrice-widowed Salmon P. Chase, is bright, charming, and firmly ensconced as her father’s political ally and the female head of his household. Despite the Chase family efforts, however, Abraham Lincoln and not Salmon P. Chase ascends to the presidency at the start of 1861. The family ends up in Washington anyway, though, when Lincoln appoints Chase to be Secretary of the Treasury.

What follows is a mash-up of political intrigue, personal life, Civil War strategy, and social engagements. The story follows the Chase family until Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.

My Thoughts:

I had higher hopes for Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival than I should have, perhaps, seeing as I’d never read anything by Jennifer Chiaverini before. Her Elm Creek Quilts novels have never appealed to me, but the premise of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival sounded promising.

The novel started off quite interesting. Though Kate came across as flat and irritatingly perfect throughout the book, she made a decent lens through which to follow Lincoln’s election and the start of the Civil War. She was, after all, in the middle of things while such events were occurring. I learned a few things , found the history fascinating, and was looking forward to more of the same.

The rest of the book, however, took a different path. It alternated between Kate’s rather predictable (though far from smooth) love life, the social situation of Washington, and her father’s political aspirations and errors. Parts read like a list of historical events, others like morality tales, and still others like snippets from a bad romance novel. It all seemed a bit Frankensteined together. I suspect maybe there was too much to cover, but rather than choose judiciously what to include, Chiaverini just tossed it all in and brushed over the surface instead of giving weight to much of anything. On top of all that, the parts I’d been interested in mostly disappeared. The Civil War was mentioned briefly every few chapters but was largely ignored. Lincoln’s political doings faded into the background. I did a lot of eye rolling and tuning out while the story chattered on in my ears.

The writing in Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival was mediocre. In my opinion it relied far too heavily on “tell” and not at all on “show.” We’re told exactly what Kate is feeling, for instance, instead of being invited to infer through a more subtle approach. We know precisely what Kate is wearing most of the time, even when its relevance to the story is highly questionable. The characters are distressingly two-dimensional. It’s hard to make two-dimensional characters develop, so I guess I can’t cite the lack of growth as a separate issue. Kate’s father comes across as a bit of an idiot, her younger sister a wheedling child (even when she’s grown old enough not to be). Kate herself is virtuous and all-knowing and the model of propriety from first page to last. The only person in the book I liked at all aside from Lincoln was a minor character, a friend of Kate’s whom she doesn’t even come close to appreciating. I was willing to put up with all of this when the content itself was interesting to me, but as the book progressed, I lost my patience.

It bothered me quite a lot that the book was titled Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. The rival aspect felt extremely forced and not at all the main angle from which Kate Chase was portrayed in the book. It may have been that an actual rivalry existed — both women were, after all, historical figures — but I suspect the evocation of Mrs. Lincoln in the book’s title was more to borrow her fame than anything else. The reason for the two women being at odds is never really made clear, and the occasional attempts to highlight the rivalry came across as forced.

I’m pretty sure it’s unfair to judge Kate Chase by the way she’s portrayed in Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. If anything, the novel has made me interested to find out what the real Kate Chase was like. I imagine she must have been more human, more dynamic, than she is in this version of her life. I hope so, at least!

Christina Moore was fine as the audiobook’s narrator. She didn’t sound the way I’d imagine Kate to sound, but there’s nothing I can really fault her on. Who knows, without her steady reading, I may have given up on Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival long before the end!

The Verdict: Lacking

I finished Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival because I’d committed to reviewing it, and a book has to be atrocious for me to abandon such a commitment midway through. Still, in the end I found it rather disappointing and would have given up after the first few discs had I picked it up on my own. Not one I’ll be extolling to anyone who will listen, that much is certain. I won’t be dashing out to pick up another book by Chiaverini, either.

Your Turn!

What novels have you hoped to learn from that ended up letting you down?

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I received a copy of The Good Braider by Terry Farish for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

About the Book:

The Good Braider by Terry Farish (Audiobook) (http://erinreads.com/)We first glimpse Viola, just briefly, in the United States. We know she’s safe and doing her best to fit her Sudanese self into her new American life.

Then we’re plunged into Viola’s past. Over the chapters that follow, we walk with her on her long and unimaginably hard journey. From war-torn South Sudan to a refugee camp in Cairo to family in Maine, Viola struggles to stay alive, stay true to herself, and find her place in the world.

My Thoughts:

I was skeptical at first; after all, The Good Braider proposes to cover a lot of ground for a book that’s just five discs long on audio. I guessed it would be too shallow to be very powerful, too abbreviated to do its subject justice. I’m happy to report I was very pleasantly surprised.

There is something about the way Terry Farish writes that makes The Good Braider just work. Goodreads says the novel is written in “spare free verse,” which makes sense. Though I listened to the book instead of reading it, the writing has a free verse kind of quality to it. Farish only needs a few words to communicate layers of emotion and significance with power and truth. She calls up vivid images with ease. Her scenes are short, and she dips in and out of time at various intervals, but her ability to zoom in on precisely the moments and details she needs makes the story feel amazingly substantial. The war in Sudan is viscerally real. The relationships Viola has with her family and friends are nuanced and complex. Viola’s feelings of being caught between two cultures yet part of neither seeps from the pages, permeates her viewpoint and her actions. It’s really quite impressive.

Viola is the kind of character you can’t help but root for. You respect her, learn from her, cross your fingers and toes for her. You bear witness to her story and realize what you are seeing is truth. You want her to help you understand her situation, to make her life real for you. And she does. You can’t help but be moved by the time you reach the final page (or track, in my case).

I appreciate that Farish doesn’t shy away from tough issues. She doesn’t sugarcoat Viola’s life or shelter her from reality by any means. At the same time, though, she’s not more graphic in her telling than she needs to be. I never felt like she included an incident or description purely for shock value. Her judicious use of really hard topics makes them all the more powerful, in my opinion.

Cherise Boothe does an exquisite job reading The Good Braider. I could not have asked for more in a narrator. She fit Viola’s voice like a glove, which always makes for a smooth and enjoyable listening experience. It was like the cherry on top of the sundae that is The Good Braider.

I don’t have much else to say. It’s a powerful story, expertly told and seamlessly narrated. I’m happy this little gem happened to cross my path.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

The Good Braider didn’t quite hit the “excellent” level for me, but it was on the very high end of “enjoyable.” If it sounds like something that’s up your alley, give the audiobook a try. I think you’ll like it.

Your Turn!

What apparently simple books have surprised you with their depth, complexity, or thoroughness?

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The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is one of those books that’s been on my shelf for years. In my efforts to read what I own, and because my library had it on audio, I finally picked it up.

About the Book:

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje cover (http://erinreads.com)Set near the end of World War II, The English Patient tells the story of four people who are brought together in an Italian villa. There’s the nameless English patient, bedridden and burned beyond recognition. There’s Hana, the young Canadian nurse who stayed behind to care for him. There’s Caravaggio, a maimed thief who, long ago, was a friend of Hana’s father. And there’s Kip, a polite and detached Sikh who defuses bombs for the British army.

The English Patient is the story of how their lives intersect. It is riddled with stories from the past, memories, and glimpses of each character’s inner life.

My Thoughts:

I listened to The English Patient, and I believe that was the wrong approach to take. I’ve seen others mention having a similar experience, so I don’t think it’s just me. Honestly, this review is a little tough to write (and will be rather brief) because I hardly remember the details of the book!

I suspect The English Patient really might be quite lovely, but you cannot drift off and still follow along. If you lose the thread of the story even briefly, you have no idea where you are. Not the kind of book that works well on audio, at least for me. A character would pop up in another character’s memory and I’d have no idea who it was or how he or she tied in with the story. Or I’d be lost as to what was happening in the book’s present versus in its past. On top of that, there’s a bit of a mystery about who the English patient actually is, so I felt like I never quite knew what was true in stories that related to him somehow (which, admittedly, might have been the point, but it compounded my feeling lost in the book in general). It also didn’t help that there’s only one narrator: Christopher Cazenove. He did a fine job, but having a single voice covering four characters and the stories they tell made it hard to distinguish who was talking.

My favorite character was Kip. I really liked his story and found his character to be particularly well drawn and intriguing. I didn’t know anything about the squads trained to defuse bombs for the British, so I learned a bit as well. But as you can probably tell, I’m short on remembered details even for my favorite character! I definitely blame my choice of audio over print for that problem.

At the same time, there are other books I’ve listened to and really enjoyed that I’d never have gotten through in print. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts comes to mind. Funny how it can work both ways.

The Verdict: Mediocre

In theory, I should have liked The English Patient. It features four very interesting characters. There’s a bit of history. There are details of what life was like for the foursome trying to get by alone in the villa. It’s well written, compelling. I think if I’d read it in print, I’d probably have rated it a level higher. It just didn’t work on audio for me.

If you’re going to give this one a shot, I would opt for the written form unless you have supernatural powers of attention!

Your Turn!

Is there a book you’ve listened to that you think would’ve worked much better in print…or vice versa?

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