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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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

“Maybe I am fated to always be alone, Tsukuru found himself thinking. People came to him, but in the end they always left. They came, seeking something, but either they couldn’t find it, or were unhappy with what they found (or else they were disappointed or angry), and then they left. One day, without warning, they vanished, with no explanation, no word of farewell. Like a silent hatchet had sliced the ties between them, ties through which warm blood still flowed, along with a quiet pulse.”

Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends in high school, all of whose names had a color inside them. He always felt that he didn’t quite fit with them because his name did not, but they were close despite what he felt was his colorlessness. Four friends who did everything together, an inseparable group that seemed to be balanced perfectly between each personality. Until the day they were gone.

For no reason that he can fathom, his friends cut him off with no explanation. They don’t answer his calls, avoid him when he’s home and he doesn’t see them again for many years. From that day forward, Tazaki is lost. He seems unable to connect to other people, gaining no more close friends and engaging in no close relationships. He attends college, gets a job and moves on with his life physically in Tokyo, but his spirit is still stuck in his past. He almost doesn’t survive the loss, as their absence from his life sends him into a deep and almost irreversible depression.

Then he meets Sara. A lovely woman who attracts him and who he can actually see, possibly, spending the rest of his life with. She presses him to find out what happened, insisting that they won’t be able to move forward until he fixes his shattered past because some part of him will always be holding back. Always waiting for his friends to return.

Tazaki embarks upon trips to confront and speak with each person in his old quartet to figure out what happened and why.

And what he finds is deeply disturbing.

Murakami is as always, mystical, enthralling and personal. He delves into his characters unabashedly, showing you their strange nightmares and weird urges along with their softer inclinations and goodness. Tazaki sees himself as a boring person and much of the book feels muted because of how he describes himself, his past and his thoughts. He seems almost detached from the innermost self he lays bare for us; the same detachment he battles with in his relationships with other people. His despair in being colorless permeates his entire story and how it unfolds.

Though this wasn’t my favorite Murakami, it was definitely a worthwhile read. For those that may have struggled with 1Q84, this is completely the opposite – in length, size and design.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is a pocket-sized story packed with emotional resonance and atmospheric storytelling. Tazaki will give you hope that even those who are lost for a long time, can find their way back to who they were meant to be.

A life story

We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had with souls that made our souls wiser, that spoke what we thought, that told us what we knew, that gave us leave to be what we inly are.”  – David Richo

I am covering a funeral tomorrow of a very special man to this community. He has let our journalists follow his everyday life, his struggle with illness and now, the final chapter, his death. We have shared in everything from his surprise birthday party to a date with his girlfriend. We’ve spent hours hanging out with his family at the hospital, in their home or out in the community at events. We have been witnesses to how many friends, family members and acquaintances he has touched in his lifetime. Though I am confident in my ability to cover this funeral because I am creating the video, I find myself daunted by our writer’s part in this story. How do you find the words to encompass a whole person? How do you do justice to someone who has touched so many people? Maybe it is simply because I am not a writer, but I would love and be completely intimidated by the honor of writing a person’s last chapter. How do you capture it all? The history, humor, hope, faith and everlasting love of a lifetime. I believe that the ability to write it, and write it well, is an amazing achievement.

So in honor of true stories of all shapes and sizes, of everyone who has had their life written down with the eloquence and emotion it deserves, I wanted to dedicate a post to some great new non-fiction.

  A STOLEN LIFE, by Jaycee Dugard. (Simon & Schuster, $24.99.) A woman tells of being kidnapped at the age of 11 and held prisoner for 18 years by a convicted rapist and his wife.

I have not started this book but it is on my TBR shelf. To not only experience something that difficult but to share it with the world? She sounds like an incredibly brave person and I can’t wait to read her story.

  UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand. (Random House, $27.) An Olympic runner’s story of survival as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II.

I have just started Unbroken this week and I can tell you just from the first few chapters that this book is beautifully written. It has elegant imagery and moments I know will stay with me long after I’ve finished. You should see my copy, highlights galore.

  BOSSYPANTS, by Tina Fey. (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown, $26.99.) A memoir from the creator of “30 Rock.”

Though this is not so new anymore, it still deserves a mention because a lot of people I know haven’t read it yet. We do need the stories of survival, but we also need the stories that make us laugh.

  TURN RIGHT AT MACHU PICCHU by Mark Adams. (Dutton, $26.95.) Retracing the steps of the ancient city’s discoverers.

Sounds an interesting journey for those that have and have not visited Machu Picchu. It is an astonishing place that may be closed to the public soon because of too much tourism. So if you never get to see it, this book might be the next best thing.

Non-fiction is compelling because it is so often startlingly brave and true. To know that another person has struggled, has fought, has suffered and somehow, has triumphed, is a message we all need sometimes. The resilience and power of the human spirit is an important feat we all must witness, whether it be in our own everyday life, or in the lives of those whom we read about in books.

Life from Scratch

  “Hell hath no fury like a woman once ignored, who is now receiving attention several years too late.

One of the aspects of cooking I enjoy (besides the good part at the end where you get to eat the yummy food) is that it is productive and you get something out of it that you (or people with you) will enjoy. And if you mess up, you throw it away and start again. And if you really, really mess up, you throw it away again and then order Chinese food. Simple.

This must be why we see so many books like Life from Scratch, where a divorced unhappy woman pulls her life together with a resolution such as learning to cook.

Part of me always wants to scream at these books. “Really? learning to cook? you have no original ideas!” I mean really, why does the woman always have to 1.) travel and/or 2.) cook. And when they travel, why is it always in Italy? Why does she always end up finding the-job-she-always-wanted and/or a new man/ending up with the ex again? (Yes, my glare is directed at you Eat, Pray, Love – Under The Tuscan Sun – Julie and Julia etc) It is so overdone, these books are the romantic comedies of the book world. (Note: I’d put money on the movie version of Life from Scratch starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.)

But what we must inevitably admit, is that we keep going to the romantic comedies and reading these books when we need a mind vacation. In the end we all enjoy a book that combines tasty food, love, humor and a touch of drama. So despite the extreme cliche factor, I enjoyed Life from Scratch anyway.

Rachel Goldman: a graphic designer, newly divorced, unhappy. Rachel starts a food blog where she challenges herself to cook, but also talks about her private life. She writes about her friends, her ex-husband and food. Her blog quickly becomes popular and her love life takes off again. Rachel has to learn to deal with re-defining who she is, her values and her love life all at the same time.

Rachel is a funny and honest character. She will blog about how good her date smells in the same entry where she writes about how to perfectly fry an egg. She bounces back and forth between happiness and depression as different events remind her of her ex-husband and the life she used to have, but then she kicks her butt into gear and goes on with it. She is a well rounded person with as many hypocrisies, worries, self doubts and mistakes as the rest of us. Even when she is being ridiculous or hypocritical, she’ll be the first to point it out.

Not everything in life needs to be crema catalana and confetti. Sometimes you endure things just because you need to do it and then you can toast yourself on the other side.

In addition to Rachel there is her powerhouse best friend Arianna, her various dates, her wanderlust brother Ethan and even her work obsessed ex-husband Adam. Each character is well polished. They have their own distinct personalities and parts to play in her life to help form a seamless enjoyable narrative.

And the food! Now lets be honest, we all know why we read these books. Its not to listen to yet another rendition of a divorced woman crying in the bathroom (or on her bedroom floor or in a pile of laundry or into the dirty dishwater) over her failed marraige. Its for the delicious descriptions of scrumptious recipes.

I sprinkle the sugar over the top of the custards and slide them under the broiler, opening the oven door every few seconds to make sure that it is caramelizing and not burning. I remove the dishes from the oven and bring them back to the table along with two spoons. Gael cracks through the sugar crust and scoops up a small spoonful of custard.

Food is an aspect in books that attracts us because it is sensory. We can almost smell that hot crisp sugar crust on the dish, taste that cool sweet smooth custard underneath it. Food reminds of us comfort, of family, of friends, of great restaurants we’ve visited or countries we’ve traveled through. It’s one of the most important aspects of a novel like Life from Scratch because the author needs to not just make you believe in her people, she needs to make you believe in her food. You have no expectations of Rachel Goldman since you’ve never met her, but I bet you’ve eaten a crème brûlée. You know what its supposed to taste, smell, sound and feel like. And in a book that does food well, the author should be able to make you taste that crème brûlée on your tongue from her words.

Luckily in Life from Scratch, she does. Its not The Hundred-Foot Journey (was anyone else absolutely starving after that book? yum) but it is well written and descriptive enough to make you wander towards your kitchen cabinets hoping that some gourmet surprise may be waiting there. (Hint: it isn’t. you have to actually cook it! sigh.)

So if this review didn’t already made you ravenous, next time you sit down to a chocolate souffle or a roasted herb chicken with garlic cream risotto, you should crack open this book as well. It is delicious and heartfelt, in more ways than one.

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.