Today We Go Home, by Kelli Estes**-***

I expected to love this book, and I wanted it to be great. The premise is terrific: Larkin, a wounded warrior home after falling apart while on tour in Afghanistan, finds the diary of Emily, a woman that fought in the American Civil War (albeit in drag.) It’s a cool idea, and between the feminist moxie and my enthusiasm for local writers, I was ready to be wowed. It didn’t work out that way, but my thanks still go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

The contemporary component is the part I found strongest and most appealing. I haven’t seen a lot of novels featuring women in uniform (or freshly out of one,) whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, and the pain that Lark carries for her best friend, Sarah, is visceral and in places, haunting. Sarah served with Lark and died in an ambush that Lark believes she could have prevented. Lark sees her die, and then has flashbacks and nightmares that make my gut roil. Lark’s mama is dreadful, and I am heartily weary of seeing mothers take it on the chin in fiction, but I like the relationship between Lark and her grandmother and the way it is developed.

I had hopes for the second thread, the one about Emily fighting alongside her brother in the Civil War, but this part is unfortunately plagued by historical revisionism and too much convenient coincidence. For a woman to be as forward-thinking as the politically correct Emily—and this is the first time I have ever used this term in a negative way, leaning much farther to the left than your average American—would have been very unusual indeed, and for Emily to have slipped beneath the social radar in other regards would have been nearly impossible. Emily thinks at one point that her brother David is gay, for example, but she worries only for his safety, because she herself is sure that gay people are just made that way by God. And while this is a lovely sentiment, a researcher could turn under every historical rock and go through every collection of Civil War diaries and letters, and she would probably not find this sentiment in any of them. And in another case, Emily is sympathetic toward a runaway slave, not only in the sense that slavery is wrong or that the runaway is toast if his pursuers find him; she views him as her social equal. Aside from the late and admirable John Brown, and possibly his sons, it would be a hard thing indeed to find such a Caucasian person in the early 1860s, North or South. Many that fought against slavery assumed that former slaves would be deported to Africa; nearly nobody is on record during that period suggesting that Black folks were equal to whites, or that they could become friends and neighbors on equal footing.

I imagined Ta-Nehisi Coates reading this novel and howling with laughter at its naiveté.

To round it out, Emily virtually trips over another woman-disguised-as-a-male soldier, and given the vast numbers of men fighting in the Civil War, even the most generous estimate of women that served covertly makes this unlikely enough to be ludicrous.

I am not sure whether the pacing of the novel is also slow, apart from these inaccuracies and inconsistencies, or whether it was slowed by them, that sad moment akin to one in which Toto has pulled the curtain aside and revealed that Great and Powerful Oz is actually just a little dumpy bald guy talking into a microphone. All I know is that by the thirty percent mark, I was forcing myself to continue reading because I had a review copy and an obligation. I actually like having one galley with a sedate pace that I can read before I turn out the light, but my frustration with the issues noted above prevented me from reading it and then dropping off into peaceful slumber. At the sixty percent mark, I let myself off the hook. I took a quick look at the denouement to check for mitigating developments at the end, and then closed the book.

Estes is a talented writer, but I believe she has tried to do too much here. A simpler novel focusing exclusively on Lark would likely have been stronger. However, she is a writer to watch, and I believe she will do fine work in the future.

This book is for sale now.

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi*****

whenbreathbecomesairPaul Kalanithi was a promising young physician who had nearly finished completing ten years of training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. His twin ambitions had been to become a neurosurgeon and to write. When he realized how little time was left of his too-brief life, he decided to spend his remaining time writing this book. Thank you, Net Galley and Random House Publishing House for the DRC. Dr. Kalanithi died in March 2015, but he left this luminous memoir behind as part of his legacy. It is available to the public January 19, 2016.

The memoir starts with fond adolescent memories that left me dumbfounded, not only at the level of privilege he was born into, but the assumptions that go along with that. I was afraid I would fall into the uncomfortable place of not being able to generously review a dead man’s memoir. To make matters worse, I read two other memoirs that bitterly recounted the arrogance of doctors. I set this one aside about a third of the way into it until I could look at it with fresh eyes, and I am glad I did.

The spell of entitlement is broken by the forty percent mark; in fact, when he decides to continue in college simply because he isn’t done learning—a luxury that would never occur to most of us—I find myself interrupted mid-eye-roll when he mentions that in order to afford his apartment, he has to take a part time job. Now we are back in the realm of the real, and I can relate to the author.

With deft pacing and remarkable eloquence, he takes us into the world of the medical student, and we go with him to his first dissection and learn a few basic facts about the brain, including what tumors, both benign and malignant can do, and what priorities are generally set in maintaining its function. He explains why doctors sometimes recommend against heroic measures to continue a patient’s life when the patient inside is forever gone. There is information that should be shared, and information that should sometimes be saved for later; we see this from a much more personal vantage point later on.

And upon Kalanithi’s own diagnosis of terminal cancer, which has invaded his lungs and his brain, he is left “searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death.” Once his medical options are gone—oh, so swiftly!–he delves into poetry, philosophy, and even religion in order to come to terms with what he knows will happen, as well as the frustratingly ambiguous aspect of not knowing how long that will take.

Despite the fact that his death interrupted his writing, Kalanithi’s work is eloquent and absorbing, and it really didn’t feel as if it were under length to me. Maybe its brevity is what prevents it from becoming too emotionally taxing for the reader to absorb. It should rank high along with the work of Mitch Albom and Randy Pausch as a story that helps us learn to let go. Because as he points out, death will come for each of us. It always wins; the only question is when.

This book contains an epilogue written by his wife Lucy, but it stands quite nicely on its own.

Recommended for those facing death or dealing with loss, as well as for those who just like a powerful, hyper-literate memoir.

The Undertaker’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Laughter in the Unlikeliest of Places, by Dee Oliver and Jodie Berndt***-****

theundertakerswife 3.5 stars. This interesting, accessible memoir will be published in March of this year. My gratitude goes to Net Galley and Zondervan Press for providing me with an ARC.

Dee Oliver grows up in a rarified atmosphere in Virginia Beach, where her parents own an oceanfront home. After completing her degree from a private college, she enjoys life and a series of part-time jobs that entail no serious commitment or career potential, supported by her parents. Eventually she is given a very Southern, Caucasian type of ultimatum: find a real job in which you can support yourself, or find someone to marry. It is understood, in this world in which debutante season actually exists, that the spouse in question will be a man, and that he will be a person of substance. A doctor is preferable, but instead, Dee marries a doctor to the dead, the co-owner of a funeral home.

Life is definitely different now. Dee and Johnnie, her newly betrothed, cannot travel for any length of time, since people don’t make appointments before dying and he could be needed any time. Their honeymoon is a three-way party: just the two newlyweds and the corpse in the rear of the car, being transported, by happy coincidence, to their honeymoon destination.

Their daughters grow up playing tag among tombstones and jumping rope with the velvet rope that keeps the mourners in line.

The one thing that surely does not change is her standard of living. Most of her friends, she tells us, would have to call the painters themselves. How fortunate that Johnnie understood that she needed the advice of a decorator, who would then call the painters personally!

This is a quick, almost flirty read as it begins, but because I make it a point (almost) never to read books by or about affluent people, I almost tossed the book down unfinished. But I knew that something about it had made me request this ARC, and so before throwing my hands up and abandoning ship, I went back to reread the synopsis. It was a good thing I did, because it gave me hope (as Christians like to say) of better things to come.

You see, Johnnie’s occupation taught him how to console and advise the bereaved, but it didn’t take him out of his state of denial about his own mortality. Dee packed him healthy lunches which he threw away, and bought him a gym membership which he never used. It caught up to him in his early fifties, in a sudden and final way.

As half owner of a funeral home, Dee realized that she should go back to school and get the credential necessary to do Johnnie’s job. However, once it was time for her internship, she whacked her well-coiffed head smack on the glass ceiling. No way, no how would her brother-in-law allow her to do such a thing.

It was at this point that Dee received one of life’s more valuable gifts: a new perspective. Riddick’s funeral home is in the African-American section of town, and its owner is not just a man of business, he is a man of the community. It is there that she was able to intern, and the results are really funny, because the area where she lives is exclusively pale, and Riddick’s funeral parlor is in an entirely Black area. Said one visitor, after enquiring whether she was a member of the press, and being told otherwise:

“ ‘So,’ he said slowly, chewing this piece of news the way a child might process his first lima bean. He wasn’t sure whether or not to accept it. ‘So what we got here is a white woman working in a black funeral home.’
‘Yes sir. That’s exactly what you got.’
‘Well, then,’ he concluded, ‘I guess you have overcome too.’ And with that, he tipped his hat to me and walked away.”

Along with her own unique story, Oliver provides us with a good deal of sound advice to follow now, while we are alive. Did you realize that if you die without a will, up to seventy percent of what you own may be taken as taxes? I don’t know whether this applies to those of us in humbler tax brackets than those in her milieu; Oliver did not specify. Either way, though, the point is made that those of us who are married and have divided the responsibilities of married life still need to be aware of a lot of nuts-and-bolts issues that it’s easy to ignore until someone has died.

Here, nobody knows better than Oliver. She has taken care of the dead, advised the bereaved, and she has been widowed. She really does know.

Everyone who writes a memoir is entitled to tell her own story with her own voice. Nevertheless, the class and religious biases here grated and could be toned down. She tells us that we need a “team” to be on to get us through the good times and the bad ones, and here are the teams she recognizes: Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and nondenominational …it isn’t going to get any more diverse in her world. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and especially Atheists like me are going to “the other place”, as she describes it earlier in the text, since we have not asked Jesus into our hearts. There’s not a lot of wiggle-room in Oliver’s somewhat limited sphere. Your team may not even exist in her universe.

So should you read this book? I vote that you ought to. Most of this memoir is either light and amusing, or full of down-to-earth, practical advice we can use. Ditch what you can’t use; for example, if you work in construction all day and come home to an empty house, her earnest suggestion that rather than marry too soon after bereavement, you “hire a housekeeper” may not be a real world option for you. But eighty or ninety percent of her recommendations should work for everyone, and if the Bible verses don’t work for you, you can skim past most of them as I did.

The real question is whether you should shell out full jacket price for this book, and that question is a very individual one. If your lifestyle is similar to that of the author, then get one for yourself, and another copy for your BFF. If you’re married, get one for your honey, too.

If not, you may want to pick up a copy less expensively later on, or check it out from your local library if it becomes available there.

Either way, the sobering message to tuck important information where your loved ones can get to it is worth its weight in gold.

Horns, by Joe Hill ****

hornsjoehillI have to start with three things the reader should know. Then I’ll get on with it.

First, if you are looking for Stephen King II, you won’t find it here. The horror genre is the only thing I can see to connect these two gents, besides DNA. Well, if we’re picky, they both choose New England settings all or most of the time. But this writer does not use his father’s voice or style.

Second, if you have deeply held beliefs that include supernatural events, beings, and/or places, including the possibility of a bad afterlife, you may be offended by this book. He is bold, and puts it right out there in the first few pages. If you’re thinking of buying it and it may or may not push your buttons, read the first chapter before buying, or look at the first few pages online. You’ll know right away. (A taste is in the quote below).

Last but not least, if like me, you have a genuine phobia of snakes, step aside. They didn’t show themselves till the last half of the book, and I was hooked by then. If this book had been out there ten or fifteen years ago, I would have had to give it up because of them, & it would have disappointed me, because the plot is engaging and also because I paid for the book. Once they show up, they show up a lot, in vivid detail. I skimmed where I could during their scenes and read the rest a little quickly, and I got through it without the nightmares that used to plague me.

Okay. So that’s out of the way. I will tell you, I like the guy’s writing. It isn’t seamless, doesn’t mesh fluidly like the finest artists produce; I found a couple of forced elements at the end, and there is a dream sequence that is way too long and that the writer leans on way too hard to explain the list of questions he’s piled up. That said, this is a very fun ride.

The plot feels original to me, perhaps because I have never seen anyone address this subject matter with wry humor. It is cynical yet engaging. Who hasn’t wondered what hell might be like, should it exist? “Hell” is the title of the first section, and we see it immediately. Here’s a sample from page 9, which is really the third page of the story itself. He is looking at a roadside memorial, the type you see along the highway where somewhat met with mortality and their loved ones have been drawn there. It is his sweetheart that has died, and the protagonist is hung over, physically altered (title), and he sees what has been left for his beloved:

“Someone—Merrin’s mother probably—has left a decorative cross with yellow nylon roses stapled to it and a plastic Virgin who smiled with the beatific idiocy of the functionally retarded.

“He couldn’t stand that simpering smile. He couldn’t stand the cross either, planted in the place where Merrin had bled to death from her smashed-in head. A cross with yellow roses. What a fucking thing. It was like an electric chair with floral-print cushions, a bad joke. It bothered him that someone wanted to bring Christ out here. Christ was a year too late to do any good. He hadn’t been anywhere around when Merrin needed Him.”

At some point, the reader must wonder… how much of his thinking is really him, and how much of it has to do with the growths on his head? I won’t tell you, but ultimately, Hill lets us know to some degree.

If there is an echo of any writer, it is that of Michael Chabon, who is quoted twice, once at the beginning of the book, and once later, where he uses a quotation from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union about guilt. (He does not cite the work, only its writer, but I recently read it and recognized it). There is some of Chabon’s playful language and the way that he teases us with the plot, but Hill is his own writer, and it’s just as well, because no one will ever be able to replicate what Chabon does. Were Hill to try, he would find himself kneeling at the feet of the master (Chabon, not the devil, LOL).

I loved this story, warts and all, and suspect that this writer will do some really fine things in the future. As an early literary effort, this is strong.

I should add that because I am not religious at all, nothing here that is said about God or Satan disturbs me; it may be an obstacle to others, but Hill is gutsy and true to himself in his writing, even if it costs him readers. The language is crafted skillfully, and I suspect it will remain so throughout his career.

In an age of virtually unchallenged censorship, it is refreshing to see a man tell his story the way he wants to tell it.