Olive Kitteridge

oliveOlive Kitteridge is a no-nonsense and cantankerous retired school teacher living in rural Maine.  The book is a series of short stories, unconnected in any way except for the involvement of this prickly character.  The stories are varied, and often depressing, detailing the lives and struggles of the people living in this small town.  There is a good deal of depression, suicide, adultery, marital difficulties, but ultimately there is also love, understanding, and hope.

Olive’s part in these stories is sometimes central and sometimes only fleeting, a glimpse of her on the periphery.  She is definitely a strong presence and a difficult woman, who often behaves appallingly, puzzling her husband and alienating her son, frightening students, and generally disliked by most of the town.  But as we watch her through this myriad of stories we see moments of true connection, moments of hurt and loneliness.  We begin to see that behind her rough exterior there is depth of feeling, she is often nothing more than a frightened, sad, and lonely person struggling through life.

Travelling with Olive through these stories, and glimpsing into the private lives of others within the town, we are reminded that everyone struggles and we can never truly know what lives in the hearts and minds of those around us.  All we can know is that we are each on our own journey and that in our travels we will impact those around us in ways we cannot predict, as others will impact us.

Well-written with thought-provoking tales about life and love, Olive Kitteridge is a wonderful story of a woman’s struggle with life, her attempts to understand it, her desperate need to be forgiven and loved, and her hope.

“Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude – and regret.  She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside.  It baffled her, the world.  She did not want to leave it yet.”

Title:  Olive Kitteridge
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 288
Publication: Random House, March 2008

Tuesday Top Ten

toptentoughsubjects

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. Book bloggers create their own lists based on the chosen topics and post links to our lists. It’s a way of all sharing our thoughts and our love of books.  And who doesn’t love lists??

So this week the challenge is to create a list of the books that you have read that deal with tough subjects.  Interestingly, many of the books on my list ended up being young adult books, while there is plenty that is light and fluffy in the YA genre, teens also deal with a lot of tough issues and there are many books that are beautifully written yet address tremendously difficult subjects.

Young Adult Books:

  1. America by E.R. Frank – One of the most difficult books I have ever read, a boy named America ends up lost within the social service system for over 11 years, ending up in a treatment facility after trying to commit suicide.  The story of his life, the years when he fell between the cracks, is heart-wrenching, raw, and brands your heart.
  2. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – No one is speaking to Melinda – she called the cops on an end-of-summer party – while she silently tries to come to terms with the fact that she was raped at the very same party.  Bullying, sexual violence, and depression all come together to remind one how awful the teenage years can be for some.
  3. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson – Laurie Halse Anderson writes some really tough teen literature, although she does so beautifully.  Wintergirls is another example and one that I found even more difficult to read than Speak.  Two best friends with terrifying eating disorders, one who dies, and the other who lives while continuing to starve herself and engage in self-mutilation while dealing with her guilt over her friend’s death.  Stark and real, very tough stuff.
  4. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher – Hannah has committed suicide and sends cassette tapes to thirteen of her friends telling them why – and what part they played in her decision to end her life.  Clay Jensen receives one of these tapes and listens to it as he spends the night traveling through Hannah’s life.  A difficult story about guilt and the impact that seemingly small interactions can have on others.
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – This story of the Holocaust as told through the life of a young girl in Germany is heart-wrenching.  The characters are so well-developed and so beloved that I felt a greater sense of loss in this book than in any other I have read.
  6. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys Another harrowing story set during World War II, but this time following a 15-year old Lithuanian, Lina, and her family as they are forcibly removed from their country by the Soviets and sent to Siberian work camps.

Adult Books:

  1. Unbroken by Laura HillebrandAs long as I’m talking about stories set during WWII…  This true story of Louis Zamperini had many hopeful moments, displaying the power of human resiliency, but the central parts of the story, during the war and when he was held captive, were horrifying.
  2. With or Without You by Domenica Ruta – Maybe it’s because I’m a mom and because I believe that being a mom is the most important role I will ever play in my life, but books about horrific parents and the impact on their children are always hard for me to read.  This memoir definitely fell into that category for me.
  3. The Dinner by Herman Koch – The disturbing actions of the children in this story, and their parents’ complete lack of moral fiber left me disgusted and disturbed.
  4. Defending Jacob by William Landay – I loved this book, but as a parent I found it very difficult to read.  As a parent, how blind can we be to our children’s faults?  And how far will we go to deny the truth and protect the one that we love more than ourselves?  Tough questions with no simple answers.

Tuesday Top Ten

toptenlightfun

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. Book bloggers create their own lists based on the chosen topics and post links to our lists. It’s a way of all sharing our thoughts and our love of books.  And who doesn’t love lists??

So this week the challenge is to create a list of the books that you read when you need to read something light and fun.  My list consists mostly of series and genres that I enjoy in between reading more serious fare, they are always a quick read, enjoyable, leaving me ready to tackle something else.

  1. Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich – My husband always knows when I am reading one of these novels, since this is the one series, without a doubt, that always makes me laugh out loud.
  2. Cozy Mysteries – I am a huge fan of mysteries of all types, series, standalones, fluffy mysteries, and more serious fare.  In the cozy genre some of the authors I go to for a quick and fun read include Alexander McCall Smith, G.A. McKevett, Laura Childs, Kate Carlise, Sue Grafton, Carolyn Hart, Joan Hess, etc.
  3. Not-So-Cozy Mysteries – There are some mystery series that I read that I definitely do not consider light & fun, but that provoke greater thought (Louise Penny, Reed Farrel Coleman, Donna Leon) and require greater commitment from me as a reader.  There are however, a number of darker mystery series that I still consider light & fun reads from the pens of such authors as Lee Child, John Sandford, Jonathan Kellerman, etc.
  4. Picture Books – OK, so if I really need something light and fun, I spend some time with my kids and some picture books.  While there are picture books out there that address very serious and difficult issues, there are many more that are just plain fun (especially Dr. Seuss!).  Let’s face it, even ecological disaster seems lighter when told in rhyme with great illustrations…
  5. SOME YA series – I want to be careful here, because while there is plenty of light and fun reading in the young adult genre, there are also stark, dark, and difficult novels as well.  But I have had fun breezing through a number of YA series including The Hunger Games, Immortal Devices, The Iron Fey, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, Pendragon, etc.
  6. Beach Books –  You know the books I’m talking about, those great covers showing beautiful beaches and picnic baskets – a chance to get lost in some seaside town where you know the ending is always going to be happy and true love will always prevail.
  7. SOME Juvenile fiction – Like the YA category, this is another category where there is plenty to be found that is serious, but there is also a ton of fun stuff out there with great humor about growing up, families, relationships in school, and friendship.  My Fun Stories to Share post has some of the recent favorites that I read with my kids.
  8. Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz – While this series can be dark and disturbing at times, I always love the quirkiness of Odd which lends levity to otherwise dire situations.
  9. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – A childhood favorite, one that I try to re-read every now and then, it is always comfortable and brings me back to my teenage days when I wished to be Jo.
  10. The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum – OK, the flying monkeys aren’t really all that bad in the book, and the witch doesn’t even appear until towards the end, but there’s actually greater violence in the book than there is in the movie!  I just finished reading it out loud to my kids for the first time and the world of Oz is always good for escape.  Oh, and by the way, the slippers were silver…

Life After Life

lifeafterlifeUrsula Todd is born on a snowy night in England 1910.  Strangled by the umbilical cord she does not survive.  Until she is born again, and dies again, and is born again…  Through each of her lives she is born into the same family, and meets many of the same people, but her life is different each time.  Plagued by ominous feelings, nightmares, and a sense of déjà vu, Ursula manages to live on a bit longer each time by changing situations and making different choices.  You see her as a mother, a friend to Eva Braun, a battered wife, an alcoholic, a warden during the London Blitz, a rape victim, a lover, a friend, a sister, a daughter.

This book reminded me a lot of a choose-your-own-adventure.  Remember those from when we were kids?  Where every time you made a poor decision and your character died you went back to the decision point and chose differently?  While it sounds like it could get monotonous, somehow it did not, instead offering insight into the various aspects of life in England during both world wars, and highlighting the impact that small decisions have on our lives, and on our deaths.  In spite of all that Ursula suffers there is also hope, the hope that she will have yet another chance and things will turn out differently.  Who among us hasn’t occasionally wished for a chance to foresee the consequences of our actions, to somehow know the wrong path, and to have the chance to go back in time and make it right again?

“No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life.  We only have one after all; we should try and do our best.  We can never get it right, but we must try.”

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“I think it would be exhausting.”

Title:  Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 544
Publication: Reagan Arthur Books, April 2013

The Dinner

dinnerPaul and his wife Claire are off to have dinner at a fine and exclusive restaurant with Paul’s brother, Serge (a popular candidate to be the next Prime Minister of Denmark) and his wife Babette.  It seems that their teenage boys have been up to no good (but have yet to be identified by the authorities) and this is to be the topic of conversation.  Although there is a lot of tension, nastiness, flashbacks, and musings, the issue at hand does not get addressed until the dinner is nearly over.  The resulting decisions of the parents, their actions and reactions, and the resulting implications left me appalled.

I have heard this book compared to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  They are both well-written and both left me disturbed by a set of annoying, psychotic, and generally unlikable and unsympathetic characters making horrific personal decisions.  I have also heard this book compared to Defending Jacob by William Landay as books that address the lengths a parent will go to in defending their child.  I’m not sure I completely agree.  Defending Jacob deals with a parent’s love driving them to all-consuming belief in their child’s innocence in spite of evidence to the contrary.  In contrast, The Dinner shows parents who have clear proof of their child’s guilt and react with an almost evil, cold-hearted, and amoral response to the situation with seemingly no concern for the consequences of their child’s actions or their own.

So, did I like it?  Hmmm….  I’m not sure.  It was well-written and the story certainly stuck with me.  It’s very dark and biting, and although I often like dark stories and do not require happy endings, I also prefer stories where there are at least some sympathetic or likable characters…  Would I recommend it?  Sure, as long as you know what you’re getting into and don’t mind reading a disturbingly dark story with characters that seem to lack any type of moral compass.

Title: The Dinner
Author: Herman Koch
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 304
Publication: Hogarth, February 2013