Reading Ireland Month

ireland monthI’ve decided last minute to join what looks to be a fun event for the month of March. Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging are hosting Read Ireland Month (The Begorrathon) to celebrate Irish books, film, theater, and so on. At first I was disappointed that I couldn’t join because I must stick with the plan to read only from my TBR through March 31, but then it occurred to me (duh) that my current book, Skippy Dies, is by an Irish author and set in Ireland, and I was bound to have at least a few more that I could sneak in over the month. Look what else I found on my shelves:

Lake of Sorrows, Erin Hart

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore

The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

Troubles, J.G. Farrell

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Nora Webster, Com Tóibín

The Collected Stories, William Trevor (obviously a bit much to read the whole thing, but maybe some selected stories)

It must be fate! What could be more fun than finishing the TBR Double Dog Dare by reading some Irish authors? I am hoping to fit in at least three of these titles, so please do share if you’ve ready any of them, and if you’re so inclined, sign up for the event yourself! Éirinn go Brách!

Top Ten Tuesday: Making the All-Stars Team

For today’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), we’re asked to list books from the past three years that would make our list of all-time favorites. This is without a doubt one of the more difficult questions to answer, at least for me, because it means that I have to leave out other books I loved, even books I’ve been pressing into people’s hands for the last three years.

To pull this list together, I asked myself a few tough questions:

  • Did the book stay with me? Does it pop into my head, not only in reference to other books, but simply for the sheer power of some scene or description?
  • If it’s a book by a favorite author, is it one of the best representations of her/his work? Is it the one I would recommend most highly to new readers?
  • Do I want to read it multiple times?

Of course, one thing I know: if you ask me this same question six months or a year from now, some of the books on this list might change, even ones I selected from 2012 or 2013. No matter, though. Here’s what I chose for today’s list:

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. If you think this is a book about baseball, you are so, so wrong. Read my original review here.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Yes, it’s been hyped beyond all belief, and made into a movie, and it’s currently this litmus test for every psychological thriller written by woman, but I think this book stands on its own as a fine example of a literary thriller.
Broken Harbor, Tana French. This might be one of the least popular of her novels, but I think it’s incredibly well done, specifically for painting a picture of a dire economic time in Ireland specifically, in addition to hitting on many more universal issues about what it means to grow up, have a family, and acquire all the things that mean “success,” especially while fighting the demons of the past.
Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears. This historical mystery wends backward in time to explain how shipping magnate John Stone went out of a window one night. The writing, the detail, and the trick of it all work together so well, I couldn’t put it down.
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. This novel follows its four main characters through an uprising called The Emergency, which took place in Mumbai, India from June 1975 through March 1977. In Mistry’s capable hands, I learned a great deal about Mumbai and the surrounding areas, but also about fine storytelling. You can read my review here.
You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. This book surprised me. I have thought about it a lot since I first read it, and I keep telling myself I’ll return to it as soon as possible. This novel is primarily a story about friendship, but also how we use friendship to define ourselves and our place in the world. Read my review here.
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. Let’s see, a Western full of dark humor? With well-drawn characters and one of the best narrative voices? Hm. Yep. Makes the list. Read my mini review here.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. This novel was so vivid for me, I visit it like a memory. I know readers were divided over it, but I clearly fall on the side of “loved every second.”
Canada, Richard Ford. A remarkable story about a completely unremarkable person–over and over again, this is the type of book that really draws me in, I suppose because it requires real mastery of narrative and character development. Read my mini review here.
A Simple Plan, Scott Smith. This is another remarkable story about an unremarkable man, who along with his brother and a friend finds a big bag full of cash in a plane that’s crashed in the woods. If you saw the movie and think that’s enough, it isn’t. Smith’s attention to detail, character development, and tight plotting make this an unbelievable page-turner and a fine piece of literature to boot.

And there you have it! So how about you: was it hard to narrow it down to ten?

Reader’s Journal: The Lola Quartet

The Lola QuartetEveryone has been talking about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. That book got so much amazing blog coverage over the last few months, I wondered if it was really that good or if everyone was buying into the hype. (I find myself now worrying about this same thing with The Girl on the Train. Has the hive mind taken over?) not that it mattered—because of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I can only read from my stacks, and I don’t have a copy of Station Eleven. (Er, make that didn’t have a copy…I caved and bought it, but I havent’ read it!) I do, however, have a copy of Mandel’s The Lola Quartet that I bought several years ago and hadn’t read yet, so I decided to find out for myself what kind of author Mandel is.

Gavin Sasaki is a 28-year-old journalist living in New York City. He’s broken up with his girlfriend, the newspaper where he works is going digital and laying people off, the shower in his apartment has an ever-worsening leak, and he’s generally come to feel…well, to feel a sort of nothingness. He takes an assignment in Florida, not far from his hometown of Sanderson, covering exotic and dangerous animals that people have released into the wild that threaten the human population. While he’s there, he meets his sister, Eilo, for lunch. Eilo is a real-estate broker who deals in foreclosures. She shows him a picture of a ten-year-old little girl who looks just like Eilo when she was the same age. She also tells him that the girl has sinced vanished, that the lady left the house and took the girl with her and Eilo does not know where they’ve gone.

And so begins the story of The Lola Quartet, which was the name of the jazz band Gavin belonged to in high school, the band that was playing the very last time he saw his girlfriend, Anna Montgomery, on the night of graduation. After Gavin breaches the trust of his editor at the paper, he loses his job. He drifts aimlessly around New York and then finally decides to accept an offer to stay with Eilo in Florida while he gets back on his feet. In Florida, he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out what has happened to Anna and the little girl in the photograph, so he decides to track down the other members of the Lola Quartet—one of whom is Anna’s half-sister—to understand what happened.

Although the story primarily feels like Gavin’s, it moves between past and present (1999 and 2009) and characters (the Lola Quartet members Daniel, Jack, and Sasha, and also Anna herself, who was not a member). In the present day, Daniel, the bassist, is a cop. In the past, unbeknownst to Gavin, he was a rival for Anna’s attention and affection. Jack, the pianist, is now a drug addict, the result of a nervous breakdown in college. And Sasha, once a talented drummer and swimmer, who suffers from a serious gambling problem and now works the nightshift at a diner. Gavin visits each of them in turn, and as we hear the stories we begin to piece things together along with Gavin. The missing information is filled in with Anna’s narrative, how she got from graduation night to the hiding place where she is now.

The Lola Quartet isn’t exactly a mystery, but it has a noir feel. All of the characters seem wise and weary beyond their years, which feels appropriate to the tone of the book. All of them remember that graduation night, where the Lola Quartet played its last performance. They were set up in the back of a truck, playing late into the night. All of them remember the small hours of the morning, a singer crooning “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” (translated loosely, this means “you are beautiful to me.” You can listen to a popular version of the song by The Andrews Sisters here.) and the lyrics (“You’re really swell, I have to admit you/ Deserve expressions that really fit you/ And so I’ve racked my brain hoping to explain/ All the things that you do to me…”) fit all the longing these characters feel, sometimes for each other, sometimes for music itself, or for cards, or just for some other life. Anna, who is the only person who is not a member of the quartet, and who prefers electronic music (in particular, New Order) to anything else, seems also to be the one character who is most pragmatic, who spends the least time longing and more time doing. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that works quite well.

In some ways, this novel feels infused with music, especially in Jack’s sections, as he’s the only one of the Lola Quartet who decides to pursue music after high school. He goes to college in South Carolina and then meets his roommate, a jazz guitarist who aspires to be greater than Django Reinhardt. At the midpoint of his freshman year, an event occurs that leads him to feel that he’s lost the music, that he doesn’t have what it takes to play piano or maybe even live in the wider world, and begins his decline. The way the story moves amongst characters, from past to present—it feels like a jazz arrangement. I almost want to say, if you enjoy jazz, then the rhythm of The Lola Quartet should please you. You shouldn’t mind the lack of straightforward narrative drive, and instead you’ll enjoy the improvisations, the parts that seem to wander away but then lop full circle to make the narrative tighter than before.

Stylistically, this novel reminded me a lot of The Goldfinch, which I loved. That isn’t to say The Lola Quartet is quite as good, though, and it does have some issues. The only one that really stood out for me is that near the end, a few characters respond to a major event in a way that seems unlikely. I was happy that happened closer to the end because at that point I was ready to declare it a triumph. If I were going to give stars, those reactions would take one away. But overall, I fully enjoyed it. Mandel is a terrific writer, and now I see what all the fuss is about. Now if April 1 would just get here, so I can finally read Station Eleven!

Freestyle Friday, 02.20.2015

In the last few weeks I’ve been picking up a lot of short stories (and still staying true to the TBR Double Dog Dare). I have a subscription to One Story, and the issues (which consist, as the title suggests, of one story) have been piling up, so I finally decided to read them all. I think that sort of counts as something from the TBR, yes? I also finally got around to reading Lorrie Moore’s latest collection, Bark. More on that one another time. Right now I’m between books, but I think my next read will either be Skippy Dies or HHhH. I started both of these books last year, and through no fault of theirs set them both aside.

About this time every year I grow tired of all my clothes, but I especially grow tired of my shoes. Why is it so difficult to find cute winter shoes that one can wear with socks? I am not a tall boots person, and I have some black booties and they’re fine, but other than that I typically resort to wearing these old-school New Balance sneakers. I love them but sometimes I want more options than gray sneakers and black boots. Call me crazy. I am amazed at women who can wear ballet flats when it’s colder than, say, 60 degrees outside. That’s a definite no-go for me. I went trolling for some cute loafers or oxfords, but I can’t find anything that doesn’t either look too clunky or too much like I’ve given up on fashion. Also, I have narrow feet, and apparently all shoemakers believe that the only people with narrow feet are nuns over the age of 70. This makes me cranky. I want spring to get here just so I have a few more choices in footwear. Is that so much to ask?

Who’s planning to watch the Oscars? I’ve seen very few of the movies this year. Quite frankly, most of them were too sad for me to work up the energy to go and see them. I loved Birdman (sad) and (of course) The Grand Budapest Hotel (melancholy), so I’ll definitely be rooting for those two. I may manage to get in either Boyhood or The Imitation Game before Sunday. We’ll see. I’ll watch the show for the dresses if for no other reason. At least that’s something cheerful. Or maybe I’ll just give up and watch Guardians of the Galaxy (a.k.a. Burt Macklin in Space) again. (Edited to add: If there were an award for it, Guardians of the Galaxy would also get my vote for Best Mix Tape.)

Even though I’ve been very good about reading from my TBR, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been buying books. I had some leftover Christmas credit on The Site that Shall Not Be Named, so I may have gone a little crazy snatching up titles on sale, including:

Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, Nelson Algren. I bought this one after reading an interview with Sarah Gran where she mentioned it. I’m always on the lookout for good books about writing, not because I follow advice, but because I like any book that expands my thinking about the act (I cannot bring myself to say, “the craft”).

Black Water Rising, Attica Locke. This was on super sale and has been on my wish list since it was published. I’ve read many good reviews of this one, and I’m hoping she’ll be joining my list of favorite women mystery writers (along with Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, and Megan Abbott).

After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman. And speaking of favorite female mystery writers, I cannot resist Laura Lippman. She’s one of those authors I always enjoy. I don’t want this to sound like a back-handed compliment, but her books fit the bill for pure entertainment, and I find myself not nitpicking my way through them the way I do sometimes.

Cry Father, Benjamin Whitmer. I’m not sure where I got the idea about this one, but this dark thriller was compared to works by Philip Meyer and Cormac McCarthy, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer. My mother has been telling me about this book forever. I think she reads it twice a year or something. Also, I am probably the last person on earth who hasn’t read it, so there you go.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins. This went on my “Most Wanted” list the minute I heard about it (and not because of the annoying “this year’s Gone Girl” comparisons. It seems like the hype has started to die down and I’ve seen some lukewarm review blurbs (not full reviews, because I am wary of spoilers).

Mind of Winter, Laura Kasischke. I loved Kasischke’s novel Suspicious River (fair warning: it’s incredibly dark), and I haven’t read anything else by her in recent years so I thought I’d pick this up.

Best American Short Stories 2014, ed. Jennifer Egan. I used to buy this every year, but I’ve missed several years (like last year’s, edited by Elizabeth Strout). One thing I love about this short story collection is how each editor really takes it in a different direction. One of the best in recent years was Stephen King (although he was a controversial choice), and one of the most disappointing was Alice Sebold (truly a commercial, mediocre writer, she was a terrifically poor choice). So this year it’s Jennifer Egan, and I hope it will be full of interesting selections.

Best American Mystery Stories 2014, ed. Laura Lippman. For those of you who fear the literary short story, this is a great place to get your feet wet. I’ve only been following this collection for the last five years or so, but I’ve been impressed by the quality of the writing overall. And this year’s editor is Laura Lippman, so the stories are bound to be good.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. I was ready to dismiss this as the novel everyone’s talking about but probably isn’t that great, but then I decided to read The Lola Quartet and changed my mind because I love the way she writes.

The Might Have Been, Joseph M. Schuster. I heard an interview with Schuster on NPR a few years ago (I can’t find the link anywhere, but this article on Bloom is quite good) and decided to add it to my list. It’s another book about baseball that isn’t really about baseball (see Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding), and I loved the fact that this is Schuster’s first novel, published when he was 59. It’s never too late, folks.

Have a great weekend!

Reader’s Journal: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

The Truth About the Harry Quebert AffairNothing is better than getting lost in a good book. You’re reading along, completely absorbed, as the time passes. It must be hours, you think. You must be at least halfway through! And then you start to worry about the end, because you’re having such a good time with this book. It’s clever! It’s witty! You want to know what happens, but then at the same time you don’t because then it will all be over and you’ll have to pick out a new book and hope it’s at least half as engaging as this one.

And then you glance down at the little progress bar on your e-reader and see that you are actually only 28% through the book, and you feel a slight sense of unease. You could have sworn that you were much further along, because really how can the author keep this conceit (It’s clever! But it’s still a conceit!) going? Maybe you swiped something accidentally and it knocked your progress back. So you check. And the answer is no: you really are only 28% into this book. And the remaining 72% will feel like an eternity. It will feel like one of those runs where you are doing it just to get it done. No joy. No endorphins. No personal best. Just slogging straight through to the end.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. When I first heard about it this past summer, the plot sounded completely compelling: It’s 2008, and Marcus Goldman is a wunderkind novelist whose first book was a huge commercial success. But Marcus has a big problem: His second book is due, and he hasn’t written a word. He has writer’s block. Desperate for help, Marcus turns to his mentor, Harry Quebert, a writer whose novel, The Origins of Evil, published in 1975, has become an American classic, one of the finest love stories ever told.

Marcus goes to see Harry at his home in New Hampshire. While he’s there he makes a curious discovery about The Origins of Evil after snooping through some of Harry’s things, which is that the book is based on a love affair that Harry—in his early 30s in 1975—had with a 15-year-old girl named Nola Kellergan. Nola is somewhat famous in her own right, because in August of 1975 she disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was never found. Still unable to write, Marcus has returned, dejected, to New York when he hears the news that Harry has been arrested for Nola’s murder. Her body was found in his yard when landscapers were trying to plant some hydrangeas. The original manuscript of The Origins of Evil is also found in a leather satchel next to the body, with the inscription “Goodbye, my darling Nola” on the cover page. Marcus rushes to Harry’s side. Harry declares his innocence–at least when t comes to murder. Marcus decides that he will help Harry by discovering who actually killed Nola. And—here’s the kicker—along the way he’s persuaded by his agent, his publisher, and even Harry himself to write the story—the truth about the Harry Quebert affair.

This novel has a bit of everything most of us bookish types enjoy: it’s a book about books, about writing. It’s clever and at times laugh-out-loud funny. It has a terrific setting (I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist books set in New England). But. The dialog is wooden. The characters are cliché. The metaphors are tired. Even the references (Harry Quebert/Humbert Humbert, Nola/Lola/Lolita) are kind of, well…yawn. And it just goes on. And on. And on. It twists. It twists again. And then—wait for it—another twist. Some of these twists you see coming from a thousand miles away, while others are just barely believable.

The author, Joel Dicker, is Swiss, and the book (originally written in French) was translated into English for an American audience (after becoming a blockbuster in Europe), so about halfway through the book I started to convince myself that Dicker was actually messing with the whole idea of the American novel—that there was some sort of inside joke and I wasn’t getting it. After I finished the book, I decided to look at some reviews to see if they would tell me what I was missing. Apparently, the answer is NOTHING. From The New Yorker:

“The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.” The fact that there’s a novel within a novel about the author of another novel isn’t handled with any sort of postmodern panache, and neither are the literary allusions to Roth and Mailer—a food-obsessed Jewish mother, boxing matches—which might actually just be clichéd writing. It lacks the psychological precision of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and the sentence-level skill of Donna Tartt’s novels (both of which come to mind as similarly ambitious, plot-thick works). It’s hard to tell whether the novel is as wooden in the original French, but I’m told that it is.”

Exactly. I wish I could tell you this book raises interesting questions about authenticity, debut author hype, the relationship between teacher and student, the publishing world’s willingness to sell out anyone for a buck, or the nature of “truth” in true crime investigations and narratives (think “Serial”), but I can’t. It could have raised those questions, but ultimately, it doesn’t. Too bad.

Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated Authors in Literary Fiction

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is a freebie, so I decided to go back to a topic I didn’t get to post: the top ten underrated authors or books in a genre. I’ve chosen books by ten authors of literary fiction. Some of these authors are well-known (and some aren’t but should be), but I’ve primarily chosen books I love and wish had a wider audience.

Crooked Hearts, Robert Boswell. This is the simple story of a highly dysfunctional family, beautifully told. The Warrens are a clannish bunch, unable or unwilling to change things due to the compelling bond they feel toward one another.

The Bright Forever, Lee Martin. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 (March by Geraldine Brooks took the honor), this novel is part mystery, part family drama. Told from alternating points of view, it follows the events over the course of summer in a small town when a young girl goes missing.

The Jump-Off Creek, Molly Gloss. If, like me, you were obsessed by books like the Little House series or stories of pioneers, you will enjoy this wonderful tale a of a woman who goes to live alone in the Oregon wilderness in the late 19th century.

Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Mary Gaitskill. Outside MFA circles, Gaitskill is most well-known for writing the short story “Secretary” that was the basis for the indie film of the same name starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. This novel is about the lives of two women whose lives intersect at a point when they most need each other. Trust me, there’s nothing chick-lit about this darkly comic (and sometimes just dark) novel.

Heat, Joyce Carol Oates. It seems like most people know Oates primarily for her novels, but few people realize what a terrific short-story writer she is. I find her stories tighter than her novels, which ratchets up the psychological tension for which she’s so well known to terrific heights.

Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett. Okay, so this one won the National Book Award. The thing is—maybe because it’s a book of short stories?—people seem to have forgotten about it, and about her. Barrett’s background is mostly in science, which she marries beautifully with historical fiction to produce stories that should appeal to a wide audience. If you like historical fiction but are afraid of short stories, this book will allay all your fears.

The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris. This book surprised me so much when I first read it—it completely knocked my socks off. Russell Harmon is a self-proclaimed dart-league king in a small town. We get his story and the story of people in his life over the course of one long evening when the league championship is at stake. It’s got mystery, suspense, and dark comedy all rolled up into a heartbreaking, entertaining narrative. (My full review.)

Preston Falls, David Gates. This novel about a man’s midlife meltdown should delight any fan of Richard Ford or Richard Russo. I’ve never understood why Gates isn’t as popular as some of his contemporaries, because he writes with such a keen eye, compassion, and humor about everyday life. this book was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (in 1999). Seems like so many award finalists (and winners) slip through the cracks, doesn’t it?

And a couple of authors whose works overall don’t seem to get as much respect as they should:

Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove gets attention, but then people tend to think of it as a Western. McMurtry has a wide canon that includes more “contemporary” literary fiction (Terms of Endearment, Texasville) and Westerns, among other less easily classified novels. He’s a first-rate storyteller who deserves more attention.

Lee Smith. I think Lee Smith gets the double whammy of being labeled a regional writer (Appalachia/Southern) and a writer of “women’s fiction.” Both labels are limiting and probably keep people away from her work more than they should, but also keep her from being considered “real” literary fiction. She has a lot in common with Kent Haruf in terms of themes, if not in style and location.

What about you? What works or authors of literary fiction do you think deserve more attention?

Reader’s Journal: We Disappear

We DisappearFor years I’ve been saying that I need to keep better track of how I find books. I thought about this again when I picked up Scott Heim’s We Disappear and almost immediately wished I could offer a personal thank you to whoever recommended it.

Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City. Well, “living” might be too broad a term; he’s a writer, yes, but he’s also a meth addict, hiding out in his apartment most days and devoting his time to his high. Scott’s mother Donna lives in Haven, Kansas, just outside Hutchinson. She calls Scott to tell him that a seventeen-year-old boy named Henry Barradale was found murdered. She sends him newspaper clippings about the story and calls him regularly with updates. She bids him to come home to they can investigate together what happened to Henry, perhaps find his murderer.

Donna is suffering from terminal lung cancer. She’s a former prison tower guard at a maximum-security prison and True Detective (the magazine, not the television show) fanatic. Scott realizes her phone calls and sudden interest in Henry’s murder are really about something else, so he relents and agrees to visit. As it turns out, Henry’s murder is not the real mystery she wants to solve. We learn that the missing—the disappeared—have been an obsession of Donna’s since Scott and his sister Alice were children, when a Haven boy named Evan Carnaby vanished:

“The boy had disappeared during the time our mother was drinking, those weeks and months so long before her real disease, and soon she began staying up, quiet leaden midnights and beyond, to search for information on Evan and more missing souls. I remember hunkering downstairs to find her in the darkened kitchen, absorbed in her new undertaking. The staggering breathing, the rustle of newspapers, the sudden glint of scissors…In the mornings, Alice and I would wake to find all the faces watching us, Evan and his vanished companions, their photographs taped and pasted and pinned to our kitchen walls.”

Scott returns to find his mother similarly obsessed with Henry Barradale. The dashboard of Donna’s truck is covered in pictures of the missing, and when he arrives at the house she proudly shows him the kitchen walls she’s transformed with the same sort of clippings that she’d “taped and pasted and pinned” all those years ago. She also has an idea, a project for the two of them: a book about the missing in Kansas. She’s placed classified ads in newspapers in cities like Hutchinson and Emporia and Wichita, looking for families of the missing who want to talk, to tell their stories:

“Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped my mother’s determination. I wasn’t certain she understood the gravity, the possible danger: could she actually exploit these despairing family members or friends with all her promises, her false guarantees? Would she still discuss our fictitious research and resulting work? Her detective work, Dolores had called it.”

When Scott arrives home and his mother’s best friend Dolores picks him up at the bus station (he’s had to take the bus because he’s carrying meth to see him through his visit), he realizes immediately that his other’s disease has progressed much more than he realized. They haven’t got much time, and so he agrees to go along with most of his mother’s schemes and wishes, even when he feels it’s against better judgment (although whose better judgment is questionable, since everyone in the story is afflicted in some way that affects their faculties).

As it does in Gillian Flynn’s work, Kansas itself also becomes a sort of character in the book: the small towns, the farms, the flat, cold landscape that Scott realizes he sought to escape but carries with him:

“Along the narrow avenues were houses with shattered windows, with gardens of car parts and sandburs and tumbleweeds. I watched her scribble street names on her notepads, names that might once have been functional but now were simply silly: Cowherder Street, Barley Boulevard, God’s Green Way.”

A way of life has disappeared, one that’s reflected in the antiques in Donna’s house:

“The bronze chandelier with its drops of glass…the old firkin sugar bucket, clumped with dried roses…the Dazey butter churn. Most of the antiques had remained in our family for years. Others I hadn’t seen before, her recent discoveries from junkyards and auctions. I stepped around the room, straightening the picture frames, examining the rows of dolls in the glass china cabinet.”

We Disappear is one of those books where it’s difficult to know what might be a spoiler, so as far as plot, I’ll leave it at that even though there’s so much more. The story is told in the first person, and Scott is a compelling narrator, and it’s difficult to not to empathize with him. Everyone in this book is disappearing or disappeared in some sense, whether through illness or memory or reality, but Scott in particular has always felt invisible in some ways—a gay teenager in small-town Kansas, escaped to the big city where instead of finding himself he found the drug that would cause him to disappear even further. He’s an addict, and he makes no bones about the fact, but neither does he glamorize it or use it to shame, blame, or confuse other people. Instead, Scott does everything in the book despite his addiction, and I think that’s one of the things that keeps the book from dragging the reader around in the hopelessness of it all.

Here’s something I can’t quite figure out: as dark as this book is, I enjoyed it thoroughly. We Disappear features a meth addict, a cancer victim, a lonely alcoholic, and countless missing or murdered men, women, and children. Yet something redeeming exists, and I think ultimately that thing is love. Scott loves his mother, even with all her eccentricities, even with all his frustration at her and at himself. He knows that she loves him. It isn’t that they aren’t flawed people, but more that Heim doesn’t really let the flaws and dysfunction get in the way of the love, and that’s as unusual in a novel as in life. Hope beats steadily beneath the narrative, which makes it easy for the reader to keep going, to keep hoping.

*images and links from Goodreads and Wikipedia