Family Dynamics As Shown In Books

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book I will be reviewing today because I did, I promise. It’s just that, the excitement coursing through me as I force myself away from Amy Poehler’s new book Yes Please to be a productive, functioning human rather than a cackling fiend on the couch is impalpable. Next week, you’re going to get a really long, loving review of how much I love that book and I can say that with confidence even now because though I’ve had it for just a few hours, I’m tearing my way through it. And it is phenomenal.

But, I can’t get ahead of myself and allow this other excellent book from falling into a black hole of never being appreciated by me. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout has been on my reading list for awhile now, but got tossed aside a few times when all of my on-hold books kept surging in and I had to finish those on a deadline.

Burgess Boys

The story begins with from an outsider’s perspective, showcasing how humans have the tendency to observe and react to another’s life, particularly those who live around us, are close to us, or are celebrities that we feel belong to us (Amy Poehler and I are basically best friends for reals though, I promise). In this case, a mother and daughter focus on a small family who lived in their neighborhood, two boys and a girl, whose family mysteries seem alluring and intriguing and unknown. In this method, Strout also establishes the characters’ personalities through an outsider’s view, so when we finally meet the Burgess’ we feel as though we already know them. This is interesting because oftentimes when I’m reading, I feel as though I am next to the main characters, undergoing every event with them. In this case, I felt as though I was watching them, much like a neighbor might, and I wonder if that was the author’s intent.

From the preface, I thought the story was going to be focused on a mystery that was highlighted, but ended up being a sort of “MacGuffin” or otherwise an afterthought to the actual plot of the story. In the end, that mysteries so-called resolution doesn’t really matter to the characters and after reflecting on it, I found it doesn’t matter so much to me either. As in life, with books, you travel on a journey with complicated people whose ordinary lives are turned extraordinary through quality writing, interesting plot twists, and obstacles that arise quickly because it usually needs to be resolved by the end of the story. How things turn extraordinary often depend on the genre because an extraordinary fantastical tale about a young wizard facing the world’s evilest noseless man is different than an extraordinary memoir about a young woman embarking on a months’ long hike by herself. Yes, sometimes plot lines in stories are juiced up in order to make them interesting and oftentimes what happens to the characters wouldn’t happen to your real-life next door neighbor, but a piece of the story and those characters feel alive and recognizable.

This is the case in The Burgess Boys. There’s nothing aggressively extraordinary about these characters when you observe them at a glance, but the fact the Strout brings them to life, gives them a voice, and makes them breathe, allows a reader to see that mundane life is fraught with complications and hardships that are born from both how a person feels and acts as well as anything that might happen to them.

Part of what attracted me to the novel is not what happened because I didn’t feel as though a lot did happen. What’s interesting is seeing these different personalities that make up a dynamic of a family. My own family is close and loving and we definitely have our similarities, but there are tons of differences between us. From our family, we find the voice of reason, the comedian, the drama queen (YUP, that’s me), etc, as all families do. Sometimes our family members do things that don’t make sense to us or are wrong or are exceedingly kind, but the best types of families, the closest ones, stick through it to support, even if it looks messy and is full of mistakes.

To me, that is the essence of The Burgess Boys whose main characters are a family who are different from each other, both on an emotional level based off of life experiences and on a personality level that stems from an inherent narrative (and probably other scientific things I won’t pretend to understand), but they share a similarity that, if nothing else, is due to the fact that they are family.

Life and family are complicated and sometimes we get frustrated by that and it takes reading a book to make us understand how fragile everyone else is too. To our families and those closest friends, we are at our most vulnerable because they see us through our best and worst times. Other than just family members, sometimes we put certain people on pedestals or judge others as somehow lesser than us, or we even put people in boxes and expect that we know who they are and what they do. But people have the remarkable ability of surprising us, even those we know and love best, and regardless of if that surprise is good or bad or in-between, we have to accept it or we don’t.

I can’t honestly claim any hard feelings or angst with my family or other people (unless I’m oblivious), but it is interesting to read about. I would definitely recommend this book because it is not only a good read, but it makes you reflect on your own family and the part you play in it. Enjoy!

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Books, Books, Books

I finally went ahead and did it. I read a Gillian Flynn book. Wait, no, not that one. Not yet at least because just as I was ready to settle down with it, you know, Gone Girl, my mom lent it to someone else. Instead, I found Flynn’s novel Dark Places that drew me in with an interesting storyline.

It’s rare that I’ll stick with a book without finding some remote interest in characters, but the mystery had a hold on me that made me power read through. I cannot say I was overly invested in these characters and it’s not because they were flawed and “dark.” When reading, I don’t need to love characters or relate to them, but I do crave a fascination in them, wondering what will happen and how they might react in a situation. To be honest, as much as I liked the book overall, I didn’t care enough about the people in the beginning, which I think would have left more of an impact, in order to care in the end. All I wanted was to solve the mystery.

The mystery is what happened to a family of five, a single-mother, her three young daughters, and her teen son, who was arrested and convicted for the murders of three of them. These are not spoilers, but the premise offered on the back of the book. To start, we, the readers, are taken to a point years later when the sole surviving victim, the youngest daughter, is still very angry at the world (rightfully so), especially when no longer being able to rely on living off of the infamy that tore her life apart. An assortment of characters both living in the present and those dead looking back on the past to that last day carry the storyline along only in the sense that they fulfill necessary roles. There was some decent character development, but nothing that heightened my investment in them.

In mysteries, I’ve found that this is often the case. The premise, mystery, and resolution are far more intriguing than what characters may have to offer. It doesn’t matter who they are so long as they take you to the places you need to go, or more appropriately, can be carried to the places you need them to go. One person who incorporates both a great story and well-developed characters is JK Rowling in her Cormoran Strike series. Okay, yes, I suppose I’m slightly biased when it comes to my Literary Queen, but that is an excellent series so far! (Harry Potter will always be better, sorry I’m not sorry).

Please don’t think that I am bashing Flynn’s writing because I did enjoy reading and I could not put it down. The ending wasn’t terrible, though I was disappointed I didn’t figure it out, and at least it had a resolution! I will always be cautious about reading mysteries in the fear that they will not be resolved in the end thanks to In The Woods by Tana French.

I recommend this book, especially if you are a fan of Flynn’s Gone Girl, but then again, I haven’t read that yet.

Another book I read this week was Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. To put it lightly, this was a strange novel. Spoken through the main character’s inner monologue, nothing big really happens, save for a few intriguing moments, so the story has to be carried along by characters. Though the main character definitely left me wondering of what she was capable, I didn’t care enough about the supporting characters that the protagonist is obsessed with and I think this hindered my appreciation for the book.

As a reader, such as in life, you don’t have to agree with a character’s motive, but it’s important to be able to understand where in which an action or feeling stems. I kept waiting for something momentous to happen, which is not a bad writing device, but was left a bit confused as to where it ended. That’s not to say that I was in the mourning stage of having finished a book because I didn’t love it enough for that (that is a real thing by the way, it has to be), but it also didn’t leave me seething mad, so I will take it.

I didn’t hate the book by any means, I just thought it was strange. Again, not necessarily a bad thing.

To end this edition of Rave Review Tuesday, here’s a bit of a tangent. Since connecting my e-reader to the library, I’ve found some books that I wouldn’t normally have read, but I’m also missing that inspired feeling I get when I step into an actual library or bookstore, surrounded by books and creative, imaginative spirits. That’s why I try to alternate where I access my books. Yes, the e-reader is more convenient, but there is something to be said about holding an actual book in your hand to connect with it.

Two Books, One Theme, A Hundred Thoughts and What-Ifs

This week, I’ve read two books, a memoir about hiking and a novel about happenstance. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is one of those books that leaves you feeling inspired and in awe of the human condition. I love hiking, surrounded by trees and water, the peace of silence, and the feeling that your body and mind are truly connected. At the end of the day, I also very much like going home, eating a hot meal, using the facilities, and sleeping in my warm bed in my warm house. Camping can be fun for a couple of days, but I’m not sure I would love doing what Strayed did for that long.

Wild is a memoir Strayed wrote about her travels on the Pacific Crest Trail. Though she set out alone, she met people on the way, learned a lot about herself and her strength, and walked a whole lot. In theory, it sounds romantic. When it comes down to it, if I needed to or felt inspired to, my body could handle the physical requirements of such a journey, but emotionally, I’m not certain I would be up for it. To be fair, Strayed went through a lot of emotional obstacles that led her towards the trip, but I am certain there are people who hike for long periods of time because they like to. I am not one of those people, but I do like reading about them.

Unlike the book I mentioned that I stopped reading, I felt connected to the protagonist and her story. It was as much about her personal life and emotions as it was her hiking adventures and there was a nice balance. In memoirs, there’s never the true anxiety of wondering what will happen next because you know the protagonist is well enough in the end to have written the story (in most cases). Yes, there’s still the anticipation of things that you don’t know, but it’s not quite the same as in novels. However, memoirs portray a range of different perspectives and life experiences that can only be shared through media. At times, I felt as though I was on the trail, my legs burning, feet torn up, lugging a huge backpack that contained all of my life’s possessions. When Strayed expressed relief, I felt relieved. When she was scared, I was trembling with her. That is a mark of an excellent memoir, an author who shows not just what happened, but how he/she felt in those moments.

I was sad when the book came to an end and I also had a hankering to go hiking. No worries because Reese Witherspoon hopped onto this book before it even came out and has already filmed the movie version.

When I started The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, I was excited because I’ve had it on hold from the library since August. I was immediately pulled into the story and anxious about first, what the secret was, then how all of the stories and characters would interact. I cannot give this away, but I will say that the novel is satisfying in that it feels frustrating as hell. I liked the book in the way that I didn’t necessarily love what happened, but it left an impact.

I believe I mentioned a book I once threw across the room because I hated how it ended. This was a different circumstance and not only because I was not about to throw my electronic reader. In that book, it ended without an actual ending, but a copout. In The Husband’s Secret there are great tie-ins and an interesting plot throughout and I loved learning how they all connected. It was very hard to put this book down and I can see why I had to wait so long for it. I finished the book very quickly and felt satisfied with the ending, which again, is not easy for me!

One theme in the book that stands out to me is how the author lingers over the what-ifs in the world. She defines these possibilities, which leaves a larger impact on the way things actually play out. Though it’s important to live in the present in real life, it can sometimes be fun to imagine how things may have played out if you made a different choice, whether it’s big events or small occurrences. In real life, you’ll never know, but Moriarty uses this technique in an intriguing way which only adds to the story.

When reading, I often reflected after wondering what I would do in some of these awful situations the characters have to endure and there is no easy answer. I suppose that what the story and Moriarty wants to convey is that when faced with something, you just do it, which is prevalent in Strayed’s story as well. There’s no anticipating how you might react to something, just as there is no knowing what might happen next. Sometimes, you just have to trust yourself and your instincts to go with the flow. That’s a scary concept.

Though these books were very different, in themes and styles, they both show how important reading is. It makes you think, learn, and view things in a different light.

Swept Away by Books

Last week I read toe very different but enjoyable books. One was The Vacationers by Emma Straub and the other was The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

Straub’s Vacationers took a disgruntled New York City family on a brief respite to Mallorca. The characters and their different interactions were interesting to observe. Part of the pull of this book was the enticing landscape of a Mediterranean town. It would have been even better had the author incorporated more of Mallorca’s sights and scenes into her book, though when it comes down to it, the story is all about the characters.

I went back and forth between liking then disliking each character as they grew more complex and delved deeper into the story. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it keeps you guessing about how a character will continue to react in certain moments.

To be honest, the ending wasn’t for me. I’ve mentioned before that I often am not satisfied by a book’s ending. Without spoiling, I will say that I thought it ended a tad abruptly, taking something away from the characters’ development. In fact, I would say that I was disappointed, which is worse than liking or disliking. Overall, the book was a fun, end-of-summer read that I recommend. Hopefully you aren’t as picky as I am with stories.

Kline’s The Orphan Train hooked me from the moment I began. The book switches perspectives between a present day teen and the older woman’s history as a little girl who she befriends. Not knowing much of anything about the actual orphan trains in real life, I was fascinated to see such a thing represented in fiction. Those parts reminded me of reading Angela’s Ashes, which is one of my favorite novels. Though it’s important to read and understand actual history, I love reading about different times from a fictional standpoint because it helps better understand how a person back then would struggle.

In the end, I was a little taken aback because i was reading an Ebook and it said I had only reached 80% at that point. However, I guess there was a bunch of end of the book things and the story really was over. It ended in a good place though and I was okay with how it finished.

As embarrassing as it may sound, I actually finished both of these books in about three days. They were fairly short and for me, it’s easy to get swept away into a story. I am a fast reader so I will point out that I didn’t waste away my entire day reading. That’s not an appropriate phrase actually because any time spent reading is never a waste (unless it’s for schoolwork that’s boring, but even then you are learning something, I suppose).

If anyone has any book suggestions, I am always open to reading something new!