Book Review: The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon

I started reading this book in 2020, but did not get to finish it. I’ve had quite a few holdovers from the year before as I read too many books at once and then not finish them. I chose The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon from the shelves of a used book sale. I liked the simplicity of the cover and how the smoke swirled across it. The way the title is in a hazy script made me feel as if there were an impermanence to the words.

Sometimes I choose books this way knowing nothing about the book or the author. I never read blurbs or jacket covers. I don’t want to know about the book before I read it and sometimes the cliff notes of what should drag me into the book, puts me off.

This book is written like a stream-of-consciousness style of writing because there are no dialogue tags, no notation that anyone is speaking. This is a narrator driven book through its entirety. Had I known this before I started reading, I would have closed the book and passed it on to someone else, which is why I don’t read blurbs. I need these challenges sometimes.

There is a deep sense of searching in the pages of The Polish Boxer. There is a hunger for life and for knowing. These are the things that kept me in this non-traditional fiction book. It is a book in which a character finds himself through the search for another person. It is a journey of disappointment and self-discovery. Once you get past the lack of dialogue tags and settle into what the author is trying to tell you, I think you will enjoy the ride.

Book Review: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

Happy New Year everyone. Yes, I know, it’s the sixth. Better late than never.

Now that 2020 is out of the way, I can get back on track. The year was distracting, to say the least. I still managed to read some books, but my audio book game was off for sure. Somewhere in the summer of last year, I took part of a workshop with a book agent who was going to help us learn how to query an agent. For those of us without degrees in writing or any earthly clue what that even means, this workshop was going to be great.

It was until she gave us a homework assignment to come up with several comparative books to the ones we had written, but the caveat was that they had to be from the last five years. Insert panic. Waves of glorious, crying panic. Let’s just start with the fact that most of the books I read are from dead authors or from ones who are publishing, but not at the breakneck speed of mainstream fiction. I attempted to look up books which I thought would stand with my themes or time setting. I had a hard time taking books at their word and not reading them first to see if it was really comparable. Add to this the fact that I hadn’t read any recent fiction in a fair bit of time.

What does all of this have to do with N. K. Jemisin? I’m getting to that. This year one of my goal is to try to read a great number of Time Magazine’s Top 100 books of 2020. I am doing this to open my reading comfort zone and maybe grow as a writer. My palate for the word isn’t as broad as I had hoped, and I learned this from the workshop. My second novel has touches of science fiction and fantasy… both categories of fiction that I DON’T actually read. How do I expect to pull that off successfully? I have started my novel writing career as a pantser 100% and I’m telling you this is beyond painful in the editing phase.

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin has found its way on Time Magazine’s list, as I’m sure it is on many others as well. Before this, I had never even heard her name. You may gasp, I get it. Her book about the creation of New York City from a multi-universe point of view rocked my world. I have to admit that I listened to this as an audio book and Robin Miles is an amazing voice actress. She made Jemisin’s words come alive. I was in this book. I could see everything she wanted me to see. I am not sure how many pages it is as a traditional book, but it was a whopping 16 hours of listening. It was a race to the finish line for me as it was due back in the morning with a waiting list already formed.

I’m not going to tell you anything more about this book because I think you need to explore it for yourself. The adventure is in parsing it all together like a puzzle. It was a fabulous way to start my new journey of writer’s I’ve never read before. Get ready. This year will be ripe with book reviews.

Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Photo from James Clear website

I suppose I am late to this pandemic party in a sense. Being a nurse has had me on the front lines the whole time. Shelter in place happened only four days a week for me and then I was at work the other three. I maintained a partial normalcy as far as that was concerned. All my social outlets were changed, but I was still leaving the house.

Living in New York State has had its advantages. Our Governor locked down the state rather quickly to help decrease the spread and we opened much slower than any other place. Despite this, I am starting to see increased cases in our rural community because many people don’t feel the threat is real. They walk the streets without their masks on because they don’t want to ruin their makeup or they are too cool or they just don’t care. Meanwhile, I have so many people that I worry about who could catch this virus and die.

What does all of this have to do with James Clear’s Atomic Habits? I thought you’d never ask. At this stage of the pandemic game I have lost my usual habits. Time has become strange and marked only by the days I work and Tuesday when I have my group meeting online. I started to lose interest in the things that bring me joy. I lost my schedule basically.

I am also dealing with a teenager who we discovered recently is high functioning ASD but has a hard time making routines and doing things they liked before due to focus issues and some changing health issues. When scrolling through the available audio books at my library, Atomic Habits popped up and as it is only a five hour listen, I thought I could squeeze it in.

This served two functions. I could learn how micro changes effect your habits and it has me back into audio books which had dropped off my radar during the height of the pandemic because I was no longer driving long distances to work and I couldn’t concentrate.

The book is full of very simple and helpful tips on how to build good habits and he has several different ways you can achieve these things depending on the type of learner you are. The rules are very simple and easy to manage. I did find the book a bit over plugged. After each helpful thing he announced you could find it on his website and then listed it. It was repetitive and clearly a marketing strategy which I know works. Kudos to him, but it didn’t get by me.

There are a lot of helpful resources on his book page that could steer you in the direction you need if you are having problems keeping up with your good habits or trying to build new ones. It was worth the listen or read, whatever you’re into.

Book Review: Weather by Jenny Offill

What attracted me to this book was its title and cover. The collage feel is something very personal to me and I enjoy smashing images together to make a whole new visual. I also enjoy, weather. 

Based on these ideas, I chose Weather by Jenny Offill.

As a general rule, I don’t read jacket information, nor do I read reviews before picking up a book. (Shakes head as she writes this review). Not that I don’t go to websites that review books. I only look at the suggested covers and make a decision that way. It spices life up, trust me. As a writer, it continually reminds me of how important cover art is in capturing an audience’s attention.

After finishing the book, I see it has been on the New York Times Best Seller list and that it gets a lot of stars on Goodreads. For me, this book did not hit the mark. Maybe my enjoyment of this novel would’ve required me to read the hard copy rather than listen to it. In the audio book this is the rambling of a woman in a stream of consciousness about the coming political climate surrounding a newly elected president with a mild overarching story about her family. It is possible the arc of the story was more poignant and relevant, but the delivery was so distracting that I kept looking to see how much longer until the book ended.

The primary character Lizzie feels cynical and wry. Her brother Henry is a hot mess of a man whom she has to care for even at the expense of her own family’s happiness. The interesting parts of this story were when Lizzie interacted with other people and drove the novel forward. The rest of the time you’re stuck in her head. I have my own ADD brain to deal with and that is misery enough.

I could be wrong about this book and once the library opens back up, I might give this title another try to see if reading rather than listening is the winning form for Jenny Offill’s words. As it stands, I’m giving this book a solid…. meh.

Book Review: Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

As part of my reading rotation, I randomly stick volumes of poetry into the stack. When we have our local Friends of the Library book sale, I usually pick up several authors I’ve never heard of before because the price point is pretty good. Two bucks isn’t a lot to lose on potentially bad poetry and even the worst collections have some lines in them. You have to mine them like diamonds. It can be hard work, but finding a line that changes you is worth it for both the reader and the writer.

Strangely enough, I found a copy of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish tucked in with my reference books. I’m not quite sure what my past self was thinking and this is the glory of my life. It’s always an adventure.

Photo “Mermaid Tail” by Ellen Yeast, Cover design by Howard Klein

The cover of Lucky Fish is quite beautiful which is most likely why I picked it up at a sale. The contrast of stark white with the iridescence of the fish’s tail is enchanting. It was clever to have the author’s name first, in the colors of the fish, and the title of the book in white nestled on the tail of the fish. I like clever things, a lot.

This collection of poetry is sectioned into three parts: A Globe is Just An Asterisk, Sweet Tooth, and Lucky Penny. Each of the mini collections within are uniquely of the writer, yet their tones and meanings are very different. I am unsure if it was the writer’s intention but the reader goes on a metamorphosis with her in the most subtle of ways. In each section, I had a few favorite poems which are to be expected. The overall effect of the book is expansive in its travels, but tender in small secrets.

Part 1: A Globe is Just An Asterisk

This part is filled with exotic places the author has traveled, places some of us can only dream of and will never see, but she does a great job of capturing their essence. The poems in here are filled with learning other cultures and how these different sights and smells change the integrity of the author. Have you ever traveled someplace magnificent and enjoyed yourself only to find that the deeper meaning of the trip comes after when you slowly take in everything, when it settles into your bones. These are those poems.

My favorite poem from this group is the opener, The Secret of Soil:

“The secret of soil is that it is alive–
a step in the forest means
you are carried on the back
of a thousand bugs. The secret

I give you is on page forty-two
of my old encyclopedia set.”

Part 2: Sweet Tooth

All of the poems in this section come from the writer’s memory of being a child, of her family, and her interaction with the world. As children we often don’t understand the importance of things we see, life is more basic than that. When we get older, we lose that sense of wonder where everything we come in contact with is something to behold in amazement. Life piles on us and we forget to find joy in small things. This section was poignant for me as I near the middle of my life. I look back and wish I would have stayed a little longer, enjoyed those moments that seemed to stop time and stretch into forever. 

My favorite poem of this section was one about her relationship with her father called Mosquitoes:

“Standing there in our driveway with him,
I smacked my legs, my arms, and my face
while I waited for him to find whatever pinhole
of light he wanted me to see. At night, when I washed

my face, I’d find bursts of blood and dried bodies
slapped into my skin. Complaints at breakfast about
how I’d never do it again, how I have more homework
now, Dad.”

Part 3: Lucky Penny

For a woman who chooses to have a child, the birth of that being is something that changes her forever. You might tell yourself you will retain all that adventure and cunning you had before they are born, but there is an evolution that comes over you when you realize that you have created another human. Your body knows just what to do even when you don’t. This section is about the birth of her first child and how it morphs her view of the world, how it takes everything that has come before in the first two sections and turns it into a lexicon for her new life. It’s possible that being a mother myself had me aligned with many poems in this section, or just that life looks a little more precious now in these pandemic times. I typically am not a fan of poetry that journeys beyond a single page. I like my poetry crips and metaphorical and to the point, but her five page poem called Birth Geographic was something to behold:

“Because I know talk like this frightens you, I will say this only once: If I am
ever lost or someone ever wonders if the cause of my death is by my own
hand–let it be known that I will never leave you one my own accord. Never. If someone takes me, I will scratch and bite until I gargle soil. My mouth will be an angry mouth if anyone rips me from you. The center of my hands boiled with blossoms when we made a family. I would never flee that garden. I swear to you hear and now: If I ever go missing, know that I am trying to come home.”

This book was published by Tupelo Press out of North Adams, Massachusetts in 2011. You can visit their website here. If any of my local friends would like to read this book, please let me know. It can use a good home.

Book Review: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

“The Rules of Magic” by Alice Hoffman is above all else, a book about love.

Sure there are witches and magic and a bit of history. But the primary thread is love. The story is about a family of witches with the surname Owens. In the 1600s, their ancestor Maria Owens was killed and there was a curse placed on all the women of the family to lose the one they fell in love with. In the lineage, only women Owens are born until there is one son, Vincent.

Vincent, Frances, and Bridget are all siblings living in New York City in the 1960s. Their lineage as witches has been kept from them by their cautious mother Susanna who knew all too well of the pain of the curse against love. The children know they are different, but they don’t know how different until they go to Massachusetts for the summer of Francis’ seventeenth birthday. It is here in the family home paid for by Maria Owens in the 1600s do they find out about their gifts.

Their Aunt Isabelle gives them free reign to find themselves, to be children, and discover what they are made of. She teaches them spells, but moreover she loves them exactly as they are without trying to change them as their mother does. This home on Magnolia Street becomes a place they return to again and again.

“Don’t live a little, live a lot,” reminds Aunt Isabelle.

Each of the children struggle with their gifts and what they mean. They each do their best to stave off falling in love, afraid of the curse, but none of them can resist. I don’t want to go into any more detail about “The Rules of Magic” because I want you to experience the rich language filled with sensory description and heartbreaking tenderness of growing up a witch in the height of the 60s with war looming over them all. It is a book that covers family, love, individuality, strength of character, and perseverance.

What I will leave you with is my favorite quote which is something that I needed to be reminded of:

“The only remedy for love is to love more.”

Book Review: The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

This week I finished my most recent audio book after a very stressful weekend working in the ER. Covid-19 has been wrapping up much of my mind and making me incredibly stressed out. I have a long drive to and from work on the weekends and listening to audiobooks has helped me decompress some of these worries. When I chose The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld, I did so because the cover was beautiful.

I had a very dry period where I was unable to focus long enough to read a book, which was a trauma unto itself, but found my way back. Because of this long hiatus I lost touch with new authors and what was being published. Books these days can be a crap shoot. Many of the audiobooks I choose are based on the cover. I remember 20 years ago I spent an entire year choosing books this way. It was an incredible journey learning about new genres and writers. It helped me to jump out of my comfort zone. I was not disappointed this time either.

The Butterfly Girl is a book that has two narratives that not only cross each other, but unfold together in the most touching and beautiful way. Naomi is an investigator who works on missing children’s cases. She does this because she too was once abducted, along with her younger sister, and held captive in a bunker under strawberry fields. The sisters were orphans to start and once they were missing awhile, the search went cold. Naomi escaped her captor, but was unable to save her sister and spent the rest of her life searching for her. The hard part was, she couldn’t even remember her name.

The other narrative is about Celia, a twelve-year-old girl living on the streets on a skidrow in Oregon. Her mother is an addict and her step-father sexually assaulted her. After a series of abuses, Celia had the courage to tell someone about the abuse. Teddy, the step-father, gets arrested, but somehow convinces the jury that the child was a liar and gets set free. Celia, unable to live in the house anymore in fear of more abuse, runs away leaving her younger sister to fend for herself, much like Naomi did hers. 

Each of these main characters has something to hold onto. A sister. Naomi spends all her focus on finding the nameless sister which leads her to a town in Oregon. This is the same town that Celia lives in and on the streets is where they continue to cross paths. There are hard moments in this book as both Naomi and Celia recall the travesties done to them. It broke my heart and made me cry. I know there are children like this on the street everywhere, every day.

Rene Denfeld captures the essence of the hardship of life on the street and a life of abuse. The magical part of this book is Celia’s coping mechanism which lends the title of the book,The Butterfly Girl. Before Celia’s mother became an addict, leaving Celia to survive on her own, she had wanted to be a lepidopterist. She had shared her love of butterflies with Celia.

Throughout the book Celia visits the library to read about butterflies and sees them everywhere. They guide her away from danger and comfort her heart in the darkest times. It is a visual hope that life will once again be something she could trust.

The imagery in The Butterfly Girl is at times somber, but also beautiful in the delicate way each of these main characters see the world around them. They are cautious observers of their environments. This book was fast paced and well worth the listen as I’m sure it would be well worth the read.

Book Review: Lanny by Max Porter

Every month on the last Tuesday of the month, I meet with a handful of people and participate in the Sticky Notes Book Club. This is a themed club, but is much different than any other I’ve encountered. As a group, we choose a general topic which is often a single word. Each member then gets to choose a book as directly or loosely related to that topic as they want.

The benefit of having a book club like this is that each person gets to share a book. This opens me up personally to new types of writing that I may have not considered before. Even when I choose a book for this club, I am sure to pick an author I don’t know as well as the parameter of keeping the book under 250 pages. I do this last part because I am usually reading about eight books at a time. The themed book has to be easily consumable.

This month’s theme was time. For some reason, the digital catalogue places this book with a tag concerning time. The only thing I can relate to this book is the absence of time. It flowed in such an indirect way that the reader does not have any idea how much time passes or how fast. The entire story is a purgatory of knowing. The book I chose was called Lanny by Max Porter.  

The book is set in a small, rural town in England and is set around the Lloyd family. Robert, the father, works and commutes to London as a businessman. Jolie is a failed actress turned crime-thriller novelist and the mother of Lanny. In this town there is an old fable about Dead Papa Toothwort who lives under the city. The villager’s use this tale mostly to scare children into behaving, but Lanny likes the idea of him. Mad Pete, the local eccentric artist, plays a big role in Lanny’s life.

Lanny is a curious boy. He is wondrous and full of magical thinking. He sings to himself, makes up stories, creates art, and is outside the social circle. His mother adores him, and his father thinks he’s strange. When Lanny seems closed off at school, Jolie employs Mad Pete to give the boy art lessons in an attempt to give the child something social to do.

The relationship between the old man and the young boy is as good as anything gets in this world. Each of them are outside the social circle but at opposite ends of their lives. Pete and Lanny learn from each other and where the older give wisdom, the younger returns a joy and innocence to thinking. One day, Lanny wanders off to the woods to create a building made of mud, sticks and anything he finds. He goes missing and though Mad Pete is out of town, they accuse him of being a kidnapper and child molestor.

In the end they find Lanny, but after much languish both mentally and physically.

One of the most interesting features of this book is that it is told in the POV of the main characters in the first section and then it is random grasps of thought from all characters and nameless people in the village. It is face paced and initially confusing in the second section, but it shows how a town is affected by Lanny’s disappearance and how easy people blame each other.

The way each character thinks of the other is fascinating, as I am sure we all wish we had insight as to how other people saw us versus how we see ourselves. Here is how Mad Pete and Jolie see each other:

“And she laughed, and said she understood, and then off she drifted in that nice way she has. Responsive to the light, I would call it.”  Mad Pete

“I walked up the village street, pretending to be on my phone so as not to have to stop and chat to Peggy about the coming moral apocalypse, and I squirmed in the imaginary space between how Robert would react to a comment like that–I should be paying you!–and how I wanted to hear it. I wanted to be charmed by a comment like that.”  Jolie Lloyd

And how Robert thinks of spending time with Pete and Lanny:

“…and only after getting home and opening a beer did I realize it was the nicest few hours of my life for ages, and I hadn’t thought about work, I hadn’t checked my phone, and I enjoyed the painting…”  Robert Lloyd

My favorite line in the book that summed up Lanny was in a conversation he had with his mother where he asked her a question that boy’s around the age of ten don’t express:

“Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”

Sandwiched randomly through the book are the musings of Dead Papa Toothwort. He lives under the village and in the evenings eats snatches of villagers conversations. These sections have words curved all over the page. There are fragments of life everywhere. The reader comes to understand that Dead Papa Toothwort knows every dirty secret about each person that lives there.
This book is a mixture of harsh ideas, of introversion in characters that we actually get to see the meaning behind, and the magical mind of a ten year old boy. Lanny is the one that brings them together and tears them apart. It was a quick and enjoyable read. I’ll be on the lookout for Max Porter’s first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers which won the International  Dylan Thomas Prize.