The Hearts of Men by Nikolas Butler

There are authors whom we read with the dedication of a lifelong relationship. We know their distinct voice, their turn of phrase, their favorite words that they slightly overuse. We know their admiration or disdain for strict grammar. We know their ability to turn a simple sentence into a piercing memory. Or maybe we simply know the feeling that each of their creations gives us, those distinct moods that they encompass in each of their works.

I have always said I loved “Shotgun Lovesongs,” a book whose characters I could not name today nor whose major plot points I could expound upon. But it was one of those books that I will always remember because of how it made me feel. The dusty dryness of small town dirt roads, the taste of whiskey on your tongue on a hot day, mistakes long gone but never forgotten, bright joyful memories just slightly tinged with despair and regret – these feelings, these sensations, that was that book. I will never forget it, in my own way.

So though “Shotgun Lovesongs” will always be on my list of suggestions to friends looking for a new book to discover, I cannot say the same of “The Hearts of Men.”

A generational saga that revolves around a Boy Scout camp, Camp Chippewa, starts in 1962. It opens with Nelson Doughty, 13, the Bugler for camp. He is lonely, bullied, precise and passionate. He plays his horn with the pure love and dedication that some of us never find for anything in our lives. In that hard summer at the camp he stumbles into a friendship with a boy named Jonathan. Through it all Nelson believes in doing what is right, no matter what.

Years pass. Abuse, war, divorce, loneliness. Both men grow in different directions.

Nelson becomes the Scoutmaster for the camp and in the second piece of the book Jonathan comes back with his son. Then in the third, Jonathan’s daughter-in-law and grandson return for their last summer.

Each of the three parts shows the bravery, steadfastness and kindness of Nelson. But revolving in and out of his life are male characters whose darkness show the more damaging and shameful aspects of humanity. Alcoholism, infidelity, lies, physical abuse, rape, emotional abuse. So it goes.

The female characters in this book seem to exist only to be the victims of the male characters. One is married to an abusive husband, one is another’s mistress, one is a stripper in a seedy club, one is a sweet mother with a close relationship with her son – which was the one positive female plot point until she is raped by another man and almost killed. And, of course, unable to save herself – she must wait for a male character to save her.

Their places within this narrative felt like a painfully true reflection of how women are treated and seen by men.  As women, fear of men is something we learn and live with until the day we die. Being scared to drink a drink at a party, clutching mace in our pocket when we walk down a dark street at night, trying not to make eye contact with the guy following you down the street yelling at you to smile more, having friends walk you home – just in case.

We live our lives trying to maneuver within of the inherently dangerous state of simply being female in a male dominated society. I think that every woman who reads this book will feel the horrifyingly deep helplessness of the main female character because we are able to relate to it on an all too real level. It is, in one word, traumatic.

This book started as a novel that seemed to be a beautiful ode to camping, to honor and growing up, but it definitely ended on a different note. It slowly spirals into a depressing three part storyline that only makes us sadder as we continue to turn the pages. Are men really this awful? Are women really only seen as things to abuse, to pay for, to use, to keep, to conquer, to shut up, to save?

There is no ray of hope, no sun breaking through the clouds after the storm, no ultimate moment of redemption for most of these characters. Nelson is good and kind all way through, but he is the exception that proves the rule.

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My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

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“Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.”

Elsa, 7-years-old, is astonishingly bright, creative and outspoken. These qualities lead her to be bullied at school and friendless. At home Elsa lives with her mother who is expecting a baby and has a new partner.  She doesn’t see her father as much as she wishes, he also has a new family. So she feels left out of both of her families in different ways and is an outcast at school.

Her grandmother is who Elsa’s world revolves around. She is her best friend, taking her on adventures and telling her tales about the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different like Elsa and nobody needs to be normal to fit in. Her grandmother does whatever she can to brighten Elsa’s day, whether it’s telling her fantasical stories, playing imaginary games or breaking into the zoo at night to show her the monkeys.

When Elsa’s beloved grandmother passes away, Elsa is left feeling alone and completely lost. Then her grandmother’s letters begin to appear, leading Elsa to people in her building that she didn’t know well before. Each letter is her grandmother apologizing for something, which helps Elsa to learn about her grandmother’s past and how she is connected to each recipient of the letters.

Through these letters Elsa experiences her own quest and expands the world she lives in to include new friends, neighbors and true stories that bring the fairy tales from the Land of Almost-Awake to life in a way Elsa never knew could be true.

Humanity in all it’s imperfections and varied challenges appear in Elsa’s letter delivery exploits.  An alcoholic, a well meaning cookie making couple, a overly fastidious neighbor (Britt-Marie! I wish I had read this book first!), a lurking dangerous figure and even a very large dog who becomes Elsa’s sidekick and protector.

“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” is not just about an incredible bond between a young girl and her grandmother seeped in fairy tales and imagination. It is a beautiful testament to the strength of stories, kindness, helping others, looking beyond first impressions and knowing that everyone has their own personal struggles.

I absolutely loved this book. Elsa’s grandmother is a superhero of the type that every child should have. Someone to encourage them to be creative and brave and adventurous but also tell them the truth and protect them no matter what. Her grandmother is hilarious, getting into all kinds of trouble but always with the best intentions. As her grandmother’s past unfolds and the stories of those around Elsa are revealed, we learn how wonderful and varied a life her grandmother truly had.

This wonderful novel about second chances, love, family and the magic of a well told tale is a must-read for anyone who loves to laugh, and believes each and every one of us could use a superhero in our lives.

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

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Britt-Marie is a woman with challenges. A bit OCD, a bit unaware of social graces, a bit awkward and overly straight forward – Britt-Marie is easily misunderstood. She gives suggestions that come off as criticisms, she doesn’t easily interpret sarcasm, humor or emotion and she isn’t always sure why people do what they do. But behind all that is a woman with a sweet disposition and a big heart.

Britt-Marie unexpectedly leaves her cheating husband when she can no longer ignore that he is, in fact, cheating. When circumstances become too obvious to turn a blind eye, she decides she must go. She gets a job as caretaker of a recreation center in a small collapsing town named Borg, where most of the businesses have closed and the locals are barely holding on. Britt-Marie finds herself in a dirty recreation center no one uses (with a rat as a regular visitor) next door to a pizzeria/car repair shop/general store. Despite her best intentions to stay out of the way and simply do her job, she is drawn into the daily lives of a group of children needing a soccer coach and other local misfits who seem happy, if at odds with the world.

Though I enjoyed “Britt-Marie Was Here”, it felt so much like a book that almost, almost reached it’s real potential. Britt-Marie is a sweet character in many ways, but lacks the depth that would have made me care even more about her and her fate. The story itself has plenty of amusing moments and colorful people, but then ends feeling a bit unresolved. It felt like Backman had a wonderful premise for a book – the stage was set, the characters sketched out, the story began… and then it fell a little flat. Almost like he didn’t know where the story and characters were supposed to go in the end.

Not as amazing as “A Man Called Ove: A Novel” but still full of gentle warmth and sweet moments, “Britt-Marie Was Here” is a good book, it’s just not a great one.

Shotgun Lovesongs

Hank, Beth, Leland, Kip and Ronny grew up together in the small Wisconsin town of Little Wing.

Hank and Beth married and stayed to farm the land that had been in his family for generations.

Leland became a famous musician and moved to New York.

Kip is a successful commodities trader.

Ronny competed in rodeos all over the country until an accident left him a little too slow to manage anymore.

Now, they’re all back in Little Wing as adults, learning to be husbands, fathers and friends again. But so much has happened that they find it harder than they expected to fit together the way they used to.

“Shotgun Lovesongs” by Nickolas Butler is told through one character per chapter. We hear each part of the story through one of the five friends from their perspective.

This book is comforting, gut-wrenching, alluring and honest. These characters not only show us what it’s like to grow up in a small American town but also make us wish we had, too.

It’s full of raw emotion – weaving the struggles of trying to fit in, falling in love and figuring out how hard it can be to come home again.

No book has ever made me want to move to Wisconsin, but I have to say after reading this one, I’d consider it. The descriptions of the land are gorgeous, and the fierce, nostalgic passion these people have for their town is intoxicating.

Though their lives all went in various directions, they come together again and again like magnets that can’t be kept apart. No matter how many years pass or what happens, they end up back where they began – with each other.

One of them wonders about the girl who got away. One tries to show everyone what a success he is. Another just wants to be allowed to have more, feeling trapped in the small-town existence. Another is content; the only worries are family and the land he works.

“Shotgun Lovesongs” embodies the shiniest ideal of American spirit and history. Small-town dreams, friendships, first loves and family ties. It’ll touch your heart and soul. It may even make you want to move to Wisconsin.

As these five friends find themselves and reconnect, we learn that though it may not be truly possible to come home again, it’s damn well worth a try.

Maybe you won’t end up where you remember, but you may end up where you belong.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

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Lo Blacklock, a journalist for a travel magazine, has been given the opportunity of sailing away on the Aurora for a week long luxury cruise. The Aurora is a small, intimate ship with only a few cabins and the select special guests who were picked for her first voyage. Mixed in with socialites and other journalists, Lo is ready to relax and enjoy the plush beds, fancy food and endless champagne.

On her first night on the ship Lo is getting ready for the formal dinner and she realizes she forgot some of her makeup. She knocks next door, at Cabin 10, and borrows mascara from the woman there before going back to her cabin to finish her preparations.

The night goes as planned; beautiful dinner, schmoozing with the other attendees and drinking a little too much.  After a mostly pleasant evening, Lo returns to her cabin to snuggle down into her bed for her first real night of sleep in a week.

Then, a scream. A splash. Lo rushes to her balcony only to see swirling dark waters and what she thinks might be blood on the glass of Cabin 10. But before she can process what might have happened, the blood is gone, the night is silent again.

When she investigates the cabin next door with security, it’s empty. They inform her that the planned guest for Cabin 10 never arrived and that no passenger is missing. The cabin is bare, as if that woman had never existed.

Now Lo must get to the bottom of what she heard and saw, while trapped on a small boat with a group of people she doesn’t know. Who was that woman? Was she murdered? Was Lo dreaming? What really happened that night?

“The Woman in Cabin 10” is a claustrophobic murder mystery with a few surprising twists to keep us turning those pages. Eery and engrossing, this book is hard to put down. Ware has a talent for picking locations for murders that are deliciously creepy in their own natural ways. A glass house in the heart of a forest (In a Dark, Dark Wood) and now a small boat in the middle of an empty ocean.

After finishing this novel, you’ll check the locks on your doors before sleeping at night and possibly think twice about that vacation you were planning.

After all, boats can be very dangerous places.

Release date: July 19, 2016

Leave Me by Gayle Forman

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Sometimes being an adult feels too hard. The constant obligations. The daily responsibilities. The million tiny pieces that pile up to overwhelm us until it all feels impossible.

Until we just want to run away.

Maribeth, a mother of twins who works full time as a magazine editor, does just that.

She’s so busy with scheduling, shuttling, editing, meetings, cooking, answering emails and dealing with the stress of having two twin babies and a husband who doesn’t help out – that she doesn’t realize she’s having a heart attack until it’s almost too late.

After emergency heart surgery and a measly week in the hospital, Maribeth returns home to recuperate, only to realize that she’ll never be given that opportunity. Her husband treats her recovery like an imposition and her children still demand all of her that they did before. When she begins to feel worse rather than better, she makes the radical decision that everyone wishes they could make at one point or another when life just feels like too much to handle.

She leaves.

Maribeth packs a duffel bag, extracts some money from the bank and exits her life with an ease that surprises even her.

But a little time and some perspective can go a long way. While hiding out in her new apartment in her new city with new friends, Maribeth is finally able to be honest with herself, and those she loves, for the first time in many years.

In “Leave Me” Forman writes human nature in a way that lets us see ourselves in her characters. There is no major villain or insurmountable obstacle that takes Maribeth out of the realm of our everyday reality. She is just a person with the same problems, emotions and obligations as the rest of us. Her story feels refreshing and genuine.

And it is not just a book in which you can vicariously relish the liberation of leaving everything behind as an adult. (Though that part was quite enjoyable, I admit.) It’s about love and all that love entails. The terror. The responsibility. The joy.

It’s about how we can give so much of ourselves to others, that we lose ourselves.

And how maybe, sometimes, running away is the only way to find your way back home.

Release date: September 6, 2016

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

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The lesson here . . . Sometimes people throw things away. That doesn’t mean those things aren’t really, really good. Most of the time, it just means that person didn’t know what they had.

In the style of Jonathan Tropper, Matthew Norman writes a humorous middle-age self discovery novel about a man named Andy.

Andy runs away from Omaha after his marriage falls apart, he causes a scene at his best friends wedding and loses his job. He lives in a tiny apartment in New York working as a bartender with an angry cat who he occasionally feeds cap’n crunch. Despite doing his best to avoid his hometown where his ex-wife, ex-best friend and family live, he suddenly has to go back when he finds out his grandfather is dying.

When he arrives home, he discovers that his ex-wife now lives with her new boyfriend in his old house, his mom has undergone a makeover to become a big right-wing radio personality and his ex-best friend is still mad at him. As he navigates each of the relationships he ran away from confronting, he also has to find a way to say goodbye to his grandpa.

Then he meets a young lady named Daisy. Daisy is quirky, mysterious and randomly decides she wants to make Andy whole again. She is determined to help him dress better, recover from his heartbreak and mend his life.

Though the plot is a bit typical – middle aged man is dumped by his wife, leaves his life in ruins and runs away before being forced to come home and confront/fix all his previous problems while he happens to meet a ‘different’ woman (she has tattoos! she dresses creatively!) who makes him see himself in a new way – the book is an enjoyable read. The ending is not extremely predictable and the characters don’t all fall into perfectly happy endings, which was much more satisfying than if they had.

If you liked “This is Where I Leave You” and “The Rosie Project” you will enjoy “We’re All Damaged” as well. A slightly wacky novel about getting back on your feet after life throws you a few curveballs, “We’re All Damaged” is a fun novel filled with humor, drama and devious squirrels.