Such Good Work, by Johannes Lichtman****

I was invited to read this debut novel by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, but when I first saw it in my inbox, I recoiled. Another addiction memoir! Another chance to live through someone else’s excruciating nightmare! But then I read a few early reviews—they didn’t bear the numbed courtesy of an obligatory write-up.  And then my own sense of courtesy tipped me over the edge. I was, after all, invited. Did I not want to be invited anymore? Of course I should read it.

The story is Lichtman’s own written as autofiction, and his unusual writing style drew me in. I was surprised to see how quickly I went through it. At the outset, he is teaching creative writing and is crestfallen to find that a student he has championed has plagiarized her work for him, and not only is his anecdote written with great humor, it is immediately familiar to me, and most likely will be to all English teachers.  We want to believe; we want to be supportive. And once in awhile, someone younger than ourselves comes along and manipulates the hell out of us. It is a humbling experience.

Jonas is half American, half Swede, and he finds that to get off of opiates and opiods, he needs to be in Sweden, where street drugs are much harder to procure.  He is enrolled in a graduate program in Malmo, but finds his time is primarily consumed by the refugee crisis as he volunteers to teach in a language school. Young men from the Middle East come by the thousands, and he is proud that Sweden doesn’t close its border, doesn’t set a cap to the number of immigrants it will welcome. At the same time, the Swedish government has some double standards where race is concerned; the Roma people that set up an encampment are quickly swept away. Then the nightclub bombing in Paris provides officials with an excuse to shut it all down; it’s a tremendous blow to the refugees and to those that want to help them.

At times I fear for this writer, because he seems to have no filters with which to protect his own heart as he hurls himself into his volunteer work; he wants to make a difference so desperately.  Many years ago I saw a short film that showed a Bambi-like deer grazing in a forest, and then the massive foot of Godzilla smashes it like a bug, and in his ragged, hungry quest for social justice, the author reminds me of that deer. Social justice work requires sacrifice to be sure, but a little care toward one’s own mental health is also essential. Lichtman’s master’s thesis focuses on a Swedish writer that ultimately succumbs to despair, turning on the car and closing the garage door, and I found myself urging this author to have a care, lest the same happen to him, a danger he refers to himself in the narrative. (From the acknowledgements at the end, I see that he appears to have emerged in one piece, at least so far.)

The stories of the refugee boys are searing ones. A young man told of walking through Iran, followed by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Denmark on his way to Sweden. The whole journey was done on foot. So many families were dead that the boys’ tutors learned it was sometimes better not to inquire too deeply about those left behind. At one point, Jonas decides to become a mentor to one person, but things go amiss and he ruefully recalls his own role as that of “clumsy Samaritan.”

Lichtman’s prose is gently philosophical in a style that is slightly reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though in no way derivative. His perceptive commentary regarding the events that unfold around him, along with the lessons he learns about himself, is witty and absorbing. Along the way I picked up a little knowledge about Swedish culture and society that I didn’t have before.

The title has sharp edges.

Recommended to those interested in Swedish culture, the refugee crisis, and addiction issues, as well as to anyone that just enjoys a good memoir.

The Locals, by Jonathan Dee*****

theLocalsDee’s new novel has created a lot of buzz. Despite impressive list of publications and accomplishments, he had slid under my radar until now; thanks to Net Galley and Random House, I read this free and early in exchange for this honest review. It is available to the public Tuesday, August 8, and those that love strong, purposeful fiction should get it and read it.

The Locals is entertaining, and it also conveys a sharply driven message, one that is timely, as we see the middle classes wasting away in Western nations that were once strong and relatively democratic, the most affluent becoming richer, and tens of thousands of homeless living in cardboard shacks and tents beneath the freeways of otherwise-successful American cities.

The story starts with 9/11. Mark Firth is in Manhattan on business and is taken advantage of by a con artist. By contrast, Howland, the small (and fictional) town where he lives and in which our story is set, seems safer, and more benign. He breathes easier when he is home.

He isn’t the only one that feels that way.

Philip Hadi decides to leave the big city, and he hires Mark to fortify his summer home into a secure summer residence. From there things unfold, and Hadi takes on increasing amounts of responsibility and power in Howland.

The story is largely character driven, and I dare you to find a novel in which a large number of townspeople are better developed than these. At the outset, I think I know which are the better citizens of Howland and which are its pond scum, but as the story progresses—told in third person omniscient, with one noteworthy exception—the most lovable characters darken, while those that seem irredeemable at the outset show some vulnerability and decency. Even without the novel’s purpose, which is brainy and clever as hell, it would be a good read. I particularly credit male authors that can develop female characters with this kind of depth. You don’t see it often.

Ultimately, however, we are forced to examine, through the eyes of the people of Howland, the role of the super-rich. How much authority are we willing to cede in exchange for easy material benefit? Teachers that have questioned the authority given philanthropists that have a lot of dollars to throw around, but no background whatsoever in education, will particularly appreciate this story. Beyond all of this, it’s absorbing, entertaining, and in places it’s funny as hell.

Highly recommended to those that love strong fiction.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li**

dearfriendfrommylifei  It’s an honor to be invited to review any book by Random House and Net Galley, and so when the email came, I accepted without hesitation; I thank them for thinking of me and wish I could honestly recommend this one. Others have referred to this memoir, whose title is taken from a quote by Katharine Mansfield, as “exquisite, intimate, and lyrical”, and the author has won awards for her novels. I looked carefully to see if I could locate the genius in this book, but it eluded me completely.

The intimacy of the work is surely apparent. In essence, this is a mental health memoir, and the author writes of her fight with depression, her multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, of the expectation of others that she should continue to live when she didn’t want to. It’s brave writing, although mental health battles are now a fairly mainstream topic, but I am unable to find anything tangible to engage my interest.

My only real pleasure is in discovering that Li is already a successful writer; had it been a debut, I would have been scared silly. After all, if I say I don’t like the book, will the writer harm herself? What if I simply dodge the whole thing and let it get lost in the shuffle; will it happen then as well? But in seeing that this is someone with an established career and a wall full of accolades, probably the displeasure of one humble blogger won’t create a great deal of trauma.

The whole thing is bleak. The writer reminds us repeatedly that her life is private, that no one has the right to know any of its details and all I can think is, so what are we doing here, exactly?

Those that have read and enjoyed Li’s novels may find more to hang their hats on than I have found. All I know is that it is painful to read, has no beginning, middle or end that I can find, and is devoid of the literary qualities that can sometimes make a sad book enjoyable. I can’t recommend it.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, by Fredrik Backman****

 “When a star fades, it takes a long time for us to realize, as long as it takes for the last of its light to reach Earth…When a brain fades it takes a long time for the body to realize.”

andeverymorningthewayhome

Frederik Backman’s new novella provides us with a philosophical yet poignant glimpse of an elderly man trying to hang onto his memories, and the love of those that must say goodbye to him inch by inch. I received my DRC from Net Galley and Random House Alibi in exchange for this honest review.  This novella will be published November 1, 2016.

They say that each generation corrects for the one before it, rendering us more like our grandparents sometimes than our parents themselves. So it is with Noah and Grandpa. Grandpa calls his grandson “Noahnoah”, because he likes his grandson’s name twice as much as anyone else’s. Sometimes Noah’s father Ted comes to see Grandpa, and when he mentions Noah, Grandpa doesn’t know who that is. Sometimes Grandpa knows everyone; sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he mistakes one of them for the other.

But Grandpa—who has no other name in this book, having taken on the generic persona that Western society tends to give us as we grow very old—shares a special bond with his grandson, and it is his grandson that comes to him, still, with questions about life and the universe.

Grandma is no longer living, but theirs was a happy marriage despite their dispute about God and the afterlife.  Noah says to his grandfather, “’Grandma believed in God, but you don’t. Do you still get to go to Heaven if you die?’”

Grandpa tells him, “’Only if I’m wrong.’”

The years pass. As usual, Grandpa wants to know about school, but he has forgotten that Noahnoah isn’t a student anymore; he’s become the teacher. On the other hand, school is better than ever now. And so it goes.

This story is brief, and I read it in just a couple of sittings. Despite the cover art, it isn’t necessarily a book for children.  It’s a wonderful story in that it shows us a gentle way of dealing with aging—which can be so hard to do, particularly if Alzheimer’s makes the elderly sufferer angry with no reason—and it also helps us learn to let go. For some, this might be a good grief story. For others that had to let go without being able to be with the beloved family member much in their final years, it might be painful, because the grandson and father both spend time with this man as he declines.

I can see ways in which this story might help a YA reader with not only a strong literacy level, but the ability to think abstractly, cope with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia in an elderly relative that means a lot to them, but I would advise the parent or guardian to read it first, and then decide. There’s no sex, no profanity; just pleasure, love, joy, and aching sorrow.

Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom*****

tuesdayswithmorrie My older sister gives away most of the books she reads when she is done. She doesn’t have a lot of shelf space, and she likes the idea of other people getting to read something free. So imagine my surprise when, seeing how much I liked Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, she gave me this book and said, “You may want to read this.” Almost as an afterthought, I asked, “Do you want it back?” I was amazed when she said, “Yes. Take your time, but I would like it back.”

This was a first!

I did take my time. My sister lives in Portland, and I hadn’t yet drifted into the wonderful world of advance reader’s copies, so I had come home to Seattle with bags and bags of new treasures from Powell’s City of Books. Those I’d been wishing for were the ones I read first, and then I moved into the curiosities. When I started this one, I realized right away that it was an important read.

I’d thought a fair amount about dying lately; we’d lost someone, and my thoughts followed them from time to time. Reading the positive way that Morrie approached death was inspirational to me. Instead of stiffening and pulling away from others when he knew his physical form had become unattractive to people, he took a chance by asking for what he needed, and his wishes were met because of who he had been earlier in life, and because of his mentorship as a younger man.

I loved the little aphorisms, said in the midst of really awful pain, such as “Don’t leave too soon…but don’t stay too long”.

The fact that so many people came from miles and miles away to see him off speaks well of the character of this old man. His willingness to own the self-absorbed person he had been, and to credit the old man’s influence, speaks well of the writer.

And for me…it helped me accept what will happen one day, with a little more grace. That is a life-changing thing. Not many books change my life, but I think that Tuesdays With Morrie has.

Don’t be afraid, as Morrie says. Death isn’t contagious. Even if you are young, well, and fit…don’t be afraid to read about death. It may do you some good.