Tag Archives: Random House

Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

13th August 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Random House in coordination with TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

From the back cover:

Meet Harold Fry…recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then, one morning, the mail arrives and there is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. Thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick upon Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessy will live.

Ahh, Harold Fry. Perfectly British, the novel made the Man Booker longlist, quite a feat for a debut novelist. And though everyone I can possibly think of loved this novel…I did not.

The writing is good. Harold Fry, admirable. His painful past is lamentable and is introduced in well-paced revelations. However, even with all that, I did not quite like Harold Fry because I felt I did not really know him. Granted, this sounds odd as I just told you his past is revealed and his character honorable. But instead of feeling a kinship with Harold, I felt increasingly distanced from him as his observations bordered on kitschy needlepoint pillow fare:

He had learned it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.

Quite right, Harold, and there are easily two dozen pins on Pinterest which say virtually the same thing, as does Joyce here, in another passage:

It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.

Notice, I subconsciously introduced this quote by mentioning Joyce, and I think that is my biggest stumbling block: it didn’t feel as though Harold were making these observations but rather that Joyce was so inserted into the novel that I was being told how Joyce thought I should think Harold felt. If that makes sense.

In the first half of the book, these observations were touching, and there are several truly humbling moments when people open up to Harold and tell him about themselves in poignant ways; however, by the time the reader learns just what Harold has kept pent up within himself, these run-ins seem trite and forced, much like the group who, mainly for selfish reasons, decides to follow Harold in his pilgrimage. In other words, I wish Joyce had simply shown me these things instead of told me again and again.

However, this is quite possibly a case where I’m being much too cynical because, as I mentioned, many of those whose opinions I respect really enjoyed this book, as did most of the people on Goodreads [add it to your shelf if you like]. In fact, after finishing the book, I will say I had to really question myself: Am I unused to this kind of sacrifice and faith? Have I reached the point where sentiment seems manipulative? If so, what does that say about me?

I’m not sure I like the answers, and that, in and of itself, makes The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry an interesting read.

Check out others’ opinions on the book through TLC Book Tours.

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

3rd July 2012

*Received this book from Random House. Published by Spiegel & Grau.

“War…next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.” -Eric Partridge, 1914

In 1941, Babe, Millie, and Grace send their men off to war, trying to maintain brave facades, wanting to display confidence to a world who has lost its confidence in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Grace’s husband, a reporter, leaves his wife, young daughter, and devoted father for the front. Millie’s new husband  (and former playboy) writes her enthusiastic letters, full of bravado and swagger. Babe sees Claude off to training, no ring on her finger, only to receive a letter telling her he can’t leave without having her as his wife. But this is war, and not everyone comes home, and those who do are far different men from the ones who waved goodbye.

Next to Love tells the story you never see in World War II-era movies. In those films, couples kiss and confetti falls. There are joyful reunions. There are unhappy tears, of course, but they are quickly dried up. You never see the shell-shocked WWII vet, sitting and staring off into space, reliving the war or the man who hits the floor when a fire alarm sounds. You don’t hear the stories of devastated widows, the ones who shut down and those who hide the grief. Feldman hands you these women’s grief and asks why not.

It’s also a story of female friendship in the days before Sex and the City, when women keep their private lives private even from their best friends, unable to speak their minds fully. Their anger and hurt and frustration is tucked away, and they have internal monologues, berating themselves, trying to be better, trying not to be their mothers, trying to be the happy faces of people who weren’t at war. Then there are the women whose husbands are back but not whole. Women who are nurses and bedfellows but no longer wives and lovers.

Then there are the men – men so unused to niceties and everyday life – who are expected to snap to and fall back in line, going back to work and trying to be the husbands and fathers they’re expected to be. The women whose jobs are suddenly taken from them, who had a sense of duty and purpose are now handed cookbooks with recipes that take hours to produce.  At one point, Babe, one of the main characters, stands outside the Western Union where she worked during the war, holding her breath as government-sanctioned news came in:

She has no desire to go back to those days. Only a crazy woman would want to go back to a life of constant fear, aching longing, and unbearable loneliness. Only a fool would want to go back to that office reeking of death and grief. But it was her own front line in the war, and for three years she womaned it with a singleness of purpose. That is what she misses. Being useful. Having a cause….She has become a war lover.

And by the point in the book where she utters her confession, you understand. These women didn’t love the war, but they loved the moment in time where they were proud of their country, scared and nervous and lonely as they were, they sent their men off with pride. But the reality of loss and the pain of an altogether different loneliness strikes each of them in heartbreaking ways.

Next to Love is an unapologetically realistic look at life after war, and it’s lovingly and beautifully done. I didn’t love these people, but I also haven’t been to war and haven’t experienced the lives they have. They’re bitter and unhappy and unhappy that they’re bitter, yet I felt I had a slightly better understanding of the post-war generation after reading this book than perhaps anything I’ve read to date.

Buy this from Barnes & Noble or for your Nook, or order it from Indiebound.

You also have until midnight tonight to win this book and others by commenting on my BEA post.

The Books of BEA (And a little treat for you!)

27th June 2012

How have I not yet managed to talk about the books I got at BEA? I will tell you, though, that I am so excited about the books I had shipped home. There are only 15 of them, but wow, do they look good. These 15 represent almost all different publishers, many of them independent. They range from stories about an artist who does reproductions to a biography of a body part. Of the 15 books, 8 are by women, 7 are by men. Three are distinctly nonfiction, with Naomi Wolf’s Vagina in a category of its own. In all their, ahem, glory…

From the top:

From the top:

  • Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City Who Made the World by Boris Johnson/Riverhead Books
  • Instant by Chris Bonanos/Princeton Architectural Press (October 2012)
  • The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell/The New Press (October 2012)
  • Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mary Jo Bang/Graywolf Press (August 2012)
  • Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf/Ecco (September 2012)
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles/Penguin
  • Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Julianne Garey/Soho (December 2012)
  • The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón/Harper (July 2012)

Which will I be reading first? It’s almost as though I’m afraid to break the spell, as though if I choose one, the rest will disappear. That said, I think I’ll start with the slimmest volume, Beside the Sea. Lori and Tara actually told me about the book, saying: “It’s about a mother who is planning to kill her children.” Pleasant, right? Except that my Master’s thesis was about women who kill their children throughout literature. Specifically, the title is The Dialectic of Maternity: From Medea to the Moderns. Snazzy, huh? Ok, so it sounds kind of ridiculous, but it’s interesting how many many time this sort of story repeats itself in literature (and in life). So that will be my first pick.

And for those of you who weren’t able to make it, I have a BEA bag just for you. In the Random House tote bag are the BEA edition of The New York Review of Books, Anne Lamott’s newest, Some Assembly Required, in audio, Next to Love by Ellen Feldman (this one is so good!), and A Fatal Debt by John Gapper. Something for everyone! The only rules are you cannot have attended BEA, and you must leave me a comment. Which book would you most love to get your hands on? Is there any particular publisher you’re interested in? Do you think I’ve got 15 winners in these stacks? Make sure you comment by next Tuesday, July 3, at midnight!

UPDATE: Rachel won the BEA bag o’ goodies. Congrats!

BEA/NYC in Photos

18th June 2012

Ahh, New York. I was still in recover mode last week, thus the smallish number of posts. But today! Today I give you a gratuitous number of photos to share my time in New York, so even though it’s Monday, you can escape for a bit. Wednesday I’ll be back with the books I picked up and will even share! Mark your calendars.

My brother lives in this wondrous land called Long Island City, or the LIC. Don’t tell, but it’s a fantastic secret neighborhood. Ok, not really, but it feels like it. One short stop from the city, and it’s right by the water and has a fantastic park. When I got in Thursday afternoon, the weather was perfect, and we took a tour of the area.

And, of course, had to get a skyline shot.

Friday, my brother, Matt, took off work, and we wandered the city, eating Cuban corn, seeing the dude from the Mayhem commercials, and watching books hang themselves.

Saturday was a picnic in Prospect Park with friends and fruit, tomato-mozzarella sandwiches, prosecco, and rose. Oh, and the Radical Fairies, a group of men in drag. Never a dull moment.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which was free for the day, was our next stop. I’ve wanted to visit for years but have never made it until this trip. Lovely.

The bark on this tree was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Matt and his beau Christopher relaxing in the softest. grass. ever.

Me and Matt relaxing in the softest. grass. ever. Seriously, I hate grass, but this was almost better than my mattress.

Monday and Book Blog Uncon, which I wrote about last week.

Lori from TNBBC, one half of the reason I had the most fantastic time at BEA. Tara from Book Sexy Review is the other.

Monday evening I went to the IPPY Awards and met Larry Closs, whose fantastic book Beatitude I reviewed here. He won a gold medal in the LGBTQ category, and he and his friend John and I chatted for a good while. It was so nice to meet him!

Amy Shamroe and I. Amy was nice enough to include me in this really cool event, and it was so great to meet her in person.

Tuesday was the official start of BEA, and I met up with Julie from Julz Reads for breakfast before heading to the Javits.

For lunch, the “3 Shades of Jenn” Jenn from Jenn’s Bookshelves, Me, and Jenn from Literate Housewife (not sure I’ve ever been so thrilled to meet a Twitter person in person!) sat down with some great audiobook narrators, including Xe Sands and Karen White, both of whom I know from Twitter.

This was also shortly before I made a total fool of myself in front of The Novogratzes. (Seriously, I called everyone I knew afterward because I was so darn excited to meet this interior design SUPER duo.) I love their style and saw them from a row over. They weren’t signing, but the publicist dragged me over and introduced me because I was a fan. I was shaking and kept saying ridiculous things, but Cortney and I chatted about the Brooklyn Flea Market, and she gave me tips on a couple other places to check out. It was thrilling.

Ashley, Tara from Book Sexy Review, Amanda from Dead White Guys, Rachel from A Home Between Pages, Lori from TNBBC, Me, and Alix from Romance Books Forum

Wednesday may have been the best day ever. Ok, Wednesday was the best day ever. First of all, I attended the Power Reader breakfast at Random House. Just being in Random House? Amazing. Meeting these ladies? Even more amazing.

Farin from The Redheaded Reader, Jenn from Literate Housewife, Jenn from Jenn’s Bookshelves, Swapna from S. Krishna’s Books

I made the rounds, also getting to meet Farin from The Redheaded Reader for the first time.

But this. This right here. How can this not be “best day ever” material? I talked to Nate Berkus, and he was so friendly and kind and handsome. I seriously could barely focus on anything else I was so excited to meet him.

Then I spent the day touring booths. This was at the Chronicle booth where Chris Bonanos had this amazing camera and was taking photos for each copy he signed of his book Instant: The History of the Polaroid.

Wednesday evening I got to meet the fantastic Lydia Hirt of Riverhead Books, who organized a cocktail party for bloggers who were part of a book tour for Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone.

After that, I dashed over to Central Park where my brother (an event planner) was helping to supervise an important soiree. Christopher (on the right) and I made the most of the evening, watching how the 1% live. 🙂

Friday I walked the High Line, which is absolutely beautiful. One of the highlights was seeing the artwork some of the residents have as you walk. This installation actually glows in the dark at night. So cool. Shortly after this I went to the Chelsea Market.

Friday afternoon I walked for ages, trying to get to the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. When I was two blocks away, I see a sign stating it won’t be open until Fall 2013. So I ducked into the National Academy instead. They had an exhibit called “Women’s Work” – it was really interesting, and they also had a collection of Mary Cassatt’s work, which I love.

Then it was time for some Billy’s Bakery. Banana cupcakes. I don’t even like banana, but these are amazing. I told the guy behind the counter that this craving was a year in the making. He wisely got a big box out. 🙂

Lusting after a brownstone in Chelsea.

Me and the bro before I left Saturday morning. A huge thanks to both him and Christopher for letting me crash in their dining room – and for making an air mattress the most insanely comfortable thing I’ve slept on aside from my own bed. Love you both.

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon (And Giveaway)

21st May 2012

*I received this book from the publicist Big Honcho Media through Ballantine Books in exchange for an honest review.

Maybe it was because after almost twenty years of marriage my husband and I seemed to be running out of things to say to each other. But when the anonymous online study called “Marriage in the 21st Century” showed up in my inbox, I had no idea how profoundly it would change my life. It wasn’t long before I was assigned both a pseudonym (Wife 22) and a caseworker (Researcher 101). And, just like that, I found myself answering questions…

7. Sometimes I tell him he’s snoring when he’s not snoring so he’ll sleep in the guest room and I can have the bed all to myself.

61. He was cutting peppers for the salad. I looked at those hands and thought, I am going to have this man’s children.

32. That if we weren’t careful, it was possible to forget one another.*

At his business dinner one night, William, Alice Buckle’s husband, makes an offhand comment in front of his coworkers about Alice’s “smaller life” – he doesn’t intend to hurt her, but Alice, already uncomfortable in the business suit that doesn’t feel quite right, is thrown. Her life is already off kilter. Alice’s birthday will mark her as the same age as her mother when she died. And Alice’s life may be small, but it’s not inconsequential. She directs school theater. She raises two children. She meets with her grief support group. But her husband, the man she fell madly in love with, sees her life as small. Going online becomes Alice’s solace, so when she receives the survey on marriage, the questions allow her to open up and relive the closeness and love she once felt for her husband. But in sharing the answers with Researcher 101, she becomes fascinated by his position as anonymous reliquary for her deepest secrets and desires, and the further she feels from her life with William.

My thoughts: Alice is so funny. Wife 22 has been compared to Bridget Jones’s Diary, and I can see why. Alice is just a bit older than Bridge. She thinks her son may be gay and is a little overzealous in her acceptance. Her daughter is slim and hoards junk food, so she’s afraid she’s bulimic. Alice is so concerned that her mother’s death left her without the proper tools to be a mom, that she fails to see that she’s doing it and has done it and is ok.

And I know people bemoan the Internet, but right or wrong, it’s there for Alice in those moments when no one else is or can be, and watching Alice connect…to the Internet, with her husband, and with her children/friends is a humorous, fun, heart-rending ride. I absolutely raced through this book. I loved it. I’m not married, and I don’t have kids, but I can relate to Alice. She is completely imperfect. She can be selfish and negative and really silly at times, but let me tell you. Last week on Twitter I was complaining because my new jeans are too big. Too big. This is a problem I was begging for a month ago. So Alice? High five right here.

She, too, is self aware. She knows that she can be unreasonable and selfish, but unlike many of us, she owns it. She feels as though her life is converging on her, and she doesn’t apologize for it. Instead, she confesses, “When I’m in pain I want everyone I love on the island with me, sitting around the fire, getting drunk on coconut milk, banging out a plan.” I can get on board with that. Is it inconvenient? Selfish? To hell with it. Alice wants what she wants, and for the first time in a while, she’s not afraid to say it. Double high fives.

Annnd…Random House has generously offered up two copies of Wife 22 for two U.S. readers of the blog. All you have to do is ‘fess up…what’s the last romantic gesture someone made for you that made your knees go weak? [Giveaway runs until midnight central time on Friday, May 25, 2012.]

GIVEAWAY RESULTS: Congrats Debbie and Con! Check your email for details. Thanks to everyone who commented. 🙂

Preorder this (out 05/29/12) from Indiebound or for your Nook.

* Alice’s answers are listed sporadically, and the questions are at the end of the book. I never flipped and didn’t feel the need to. In fact, I think Gideon would have been better off leaving them off entirely, allowing the reader to wonder instead what Alice is saying with each response. In other words, don’t peek. Just leave it and enjoy the story.
P.S. Check out my post on Afterwards to see if you won the giveaway!