Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers

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4.0 Stars

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is a strange little collection on loss that will leave you with a few tears by the end. 

The narrative is dissected into fragments based on perspective. The dad, the boys and the crow all have a viewpoint to share. The story starts after the death of a wife and a mother. Her husband and two young boys are left to grieve. Helping them grieve is Crow. Crow is all parts protector, comforter, and trickster. He watches over the family and offers his incites and anecdotes to help them cope. 

I greatly enjoyed this book. Edmund Burke describes grief as a pain we cling to and make the focus of our lives. Porter expresses this through the father when he is told he should move on: “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us lets no man slow or speed or fix.”

A particularly heartbreaking part of the narrative was how the boys talked about being deliberately mean to their dad so that they wouldn’t feel bad if they forgot their mom. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes from the boys’ perspective: 

“We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test. 

We used to think we would both die at the same age she had. 

We used to think she could see us through mirrors.”

The vivid expression of grief is intermingled with the absurd, yet for anyone who has experienced grief, you know this is how it is. Grief will stalk you throughout your day, and just when you think you can keep it together; you break down. A memory or a thought will suddenly connect and there is no subduing your reaction to it. Perhaps, the single greatest line to sum up all that grief encompasses is from the dad as he remembers all the memories he shared with his wife:

“Again. I beg everything again.”

Feelings of sadness are always best soothed with a glass of dry, red wine. I recommend Domaine Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Rhone, France. The 2012 vintage was given a 91 rating by Wine Spectator. This red blend consists of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Counoise. It has a full mouth feel and deep flavor. At $39 for a 350ml bottle, it’s on the expensive side, but totally worth it.

Format: Paperback.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fates Worse Than Death

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The picture quality is terrible for this review, but fitting for the way I read the book.  Most of the book was consumed in a poorly lit bar.  I read until words became blurry, consuming most of the novel in that sitting.  Fates Worse Than Death is the third in a series of what Vonnegut called autobiographical collages, a collection of writings that were a blend of essays and personal anecdotes all done in that undeniable Vonnegut voice.

For me I’ll always prefer Vonnegut novels although there is something to be said about his short stories as well. With that said, this collection was highly enjoyable and quite thought-provoking. Vonnegut covers such a wide range of topics but the collection spends a lot of time around the topic of death.  The suicides of various family members and friends come across time and again, as does his own attempt.  His time in WWII, especially behind a prisoner at Dresden during the unfortunate bombing is another reoccurring throughout.  Although anyone familiar with Vonnegut shouldn’t be surprised about that.

It’s tough to summarize Kurt Vonnegut, the man had a mind and a voice that was familiar while at the same time like no one else you’ve ever read. That comes through loudly in Fates Worse Than Death as it does in all his works. A lot of what is contained in the book had been published elsewhere as he uses lengthy bits of pieces he’s had published in various papers and magazines along with speeches he’s given to address his points. At times, the essays run on too long because of it and honestly, in the middle, they blur together.  I think that unless you are looking to be a Vonnegut completest this is one that can be skipped. I gave it 3.5 stars but truthfully it gained a star because of how much I love Vonnegut and possibly because of the setting where I started the book as well.

I’m pairing this with Hop God from Nebraska Brewing Company and it pairs pretty perfectly with this Vonnegut collection since it is a collage of styles with a unique flavor.  Hop God is a Belgian IPA that was aged in a Chardonnay barrel.  A Belgian IPA in itself is an interesting look at the traditional IPA but factor in the aging process in the Chardonnay barrel and it is something completely different just like Vonnegut.  Even the bottle, a 22-ounce beer bottle is a blend of a beer and wine bottle.  On a slightly morbid note that I think Kurt Vonnegut would appreciate, he has one other big thing in common with the beer, both are discontinued.  

Favorite Quotes:

“It is tough to make unhappy people happier unless they need something easily prescribed, such as food or shelter.”

“You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

“Liberty is only now being born in the United States.  It wasn’t born in 1776.  Slavery was legal.  Even white women were powerless, essentially the property of their father or husband or closest male relative, or maybe a judge or lawyer.”

“Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now?  Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians.”

“We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard”

Format: Trade Paperback.

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air

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5.0 Stars

When Breath Becomes Air is heartbreakingly beautiful. A young neurosurgeon with a love for literature is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and in his attempt to understand morality and death, he teaches us how to live.

Kalanithi’s identity in this book is as both doctor and patient or as he puts it, as subject and then direct object. He gives readers an insight into his experiences and opinions as a doctor. Then, once diagnosed, he struggles with the idea of how to live. He says, “The future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.” Always eloquent, Kalanithi recounts his struggles and his decisions. A great example, and one that I believe bears witness to the depth of his character and his capacity to live, is when he and his wife discuss if they should have a child:

” ‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ She asked. ‘Don’t you think that goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

The hard choices that he had to face and the love and grief that are intermingled will bring you to tears many times throughout his book, but still, read on. Philosophical, raw, eloquent and powerful, this book’s premise is about facing death and about leaving something behind; yet what we really learn is how to live: ceaselessly striving.

Favorite quotes:

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”

“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

“I searched for a question to bring understanding. None was forthcoming. I could only imagine the overwhelming guilt, like a tidal wave, but had lifted him up and off that building.” – describing how he felt when he found out a friend and colleague had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the hospital.

“The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy. I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I could continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that in times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.” – Lucy, Paul’s wife

I’m pairing this book with Boulevard Brewing‘s Tell-Tale Tart, a slightly sour ale. I chose this brew because even though not everyone enjoys a sour ale, the tartness seemed to fit this sorrowful yet powerfully inspirational book. Add that the name of the brew is a play on words regarding literature, Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, and it seemed like the perfect pairing for Kalanithi since he was a lover of literature. He majored in English literature before turning to neurosurgery and always struggled with what to do first – medicine or writing. It’s clear that he was accomplished at both. As we see from this book, he was a brave and brilliant man. It was only time that was against him.

Format: Hardcover.

Paula Hawkin’s Girl on the Train

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3.0 Stars

Let me preface this review by saying, I absolutely loathed every single character in this goddamn book. They are all pieces of shit and I know there are people out there like this which makes me chuckle and also inexplicably angry. The only person I did not think was an asshole was Rachel, and that’s because she is pathetic. I felt bad for Rachel because she got dealt some shitty cards in life but I can’t relate with someone so dependent on another person that they destroy their own lives because they cannot live without said person.

Despite my inability to bond with any of the main characters I enjoyed this book which is super rare. If I don’t vibe with at least one character, I usually can’t bring myself to finish a book. The fact that this book was plot driven was what kept me turning the pages.

By the middle of the book, I had already guessed who had done what but I still kept reading because I was interested to see how and when the truth would be exposed. I don’t want to include any spoilers so I’ll leave it at that. The ending was a bit meh for me but I think it was because I was so engrossed in the events leading up to the unveiling of the mystery that I was expecting more. Still an entertaining, quick read.

Movie is out on October 7th. I’m interested to see how they portray this story on film. Here’s the trailer: Click (Plenty of hot dudes in the movie, haha).

I chose to pair this novel with Hendrick’s Gin because throughout the novel Rachel drinks a shitload of canned gin and tonics which always left me craving some good gin. Hendrick’s is my favorite gin. You don’t even need a mixer for it, you can just drink it straight or with just a bit of lemon.

Quotes: “I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts.”

“I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head.”

“Hollowness: that I understand. I’m starting to believe that there isn’t anything you can do to fix it. That’s what I’ve taken from the therapy sessions: the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mold yourself through the gaps”

” ‘When did you become so weak?’ I don’t know. I don’t know where that strength went, I don’t remember losing it. I think that over time it got chipped away, bit by bit, by life, by the living of it.”

“I want to drag knives over my skin, just to feel something other than shame, but I’m not even brave enough for that.”

Format: Paperback.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo

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4.0 Stars

Joy Harjo is a Mvskoke poet, musician and activist. She is a strong defender of women’s equality and is an active member of the Muscogee tribe. She uses her poetry as a “voice of the indigenous people.” I first encountered Harjo through her poetry and I’ve been hooked ever since. Harjo’s works blend the physical world with the spiritual world. She is almost a mystic, a shaman, a seer. In both her memoir and her poetry she speaks of visions and stories as though they are a part of her life and the spirits of her ancestors.

Harjo’s memoir chronicles her life from before she was born, to when she was fighting in the womb and had to be pulled into this world, to how she finally was able to envision herself above panic and poverty and eventually follow the spirit of poetry. Her storytelling in enchanting and brutally honest. The lesson that Harjo lived and relived is that through the casual abuse, rape, negligence, and fear there is still the ability to transcend beyond that, to let yourself be healed, and to bring healing to others.

While most Native literature is suffused with magical realism (for lack of a better term), Harjo is one of the few who actively sees visions. While other authors create characters like the wise grandmother or the magical elder in their works, Harjo is that character. She is the one who sees into the past of her ancestors. She’s the one who relives the life of her great-grandfather through a vision. As a reader, it is not hard to suspend my disbelief; because I want to believe. I am fascinated by the idea of being able to dream the life of your great-grandmother. I am enthralled at the thought of having sickness being eaten away by an alligator in a dream. I find it mystical and wonderful. Can I honestly say that I believe it without a doubt? Probably not. However, I want to believe; and I think it is the believing that makes it beautiful.

I’ve chosen to pair this with Black Grouse, a smokey-sweet whiskey that finishes with hints of peat and a gentle smokiness. Throughout her childhood, Harjo lived in Oklahoma and everybody seemed to have smoked. She also believed that “all of these plant medicines, like whiskey, tequila, and tobacco, are potential healers. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. You must use them carefully. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes in your protective, spiritual covering.” So pour yourself a finger of whiskey, light a cigarette and enjoy this memoir.

Memorable quotes:

“In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, the others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music.”

“I felt the presence of the sacred, a force as real and apparent as anything else in the world, present and alive, as if it were breathing. I wanted to catch hold, to remember and never forget. But the current hard reality reasserted itself. I had to have the house cleaned just right or my stepfather would punish me. So I continued on my path to forgetfulness.”

Format: Paperback.

André Brink’s A Dry White Season

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2.5 Stars

While I enjoyed reading this book, I find myself highly judgmental of the protagonist. He is a white male living in South Africa who has never really understood the racial injustices faced by his black acquaintances until a series of events happens to a black man he knows. He has been content to enjoy his privilege and status as a white man in South Africa.

Now, to be fair, this book and the voice of the character in this book are directed to white people in South Africa who do nothing about the injustices that were going on. As a woman of color, I have had to accept the role of whites “leading the way.” I’ve had to accept how because of white feminists, we are able to have colored feminists. Somebody has to pave that road. Granted, it would’ve been great to be included from the beginning. This is a more complex issue that I won’t delve too deeply into with this review. I feel as though it is the same situation in this novel. I, personally, would prefer to hear the story from the black perspective. I would like the agency and the authority to be coming from the person who the racist injustice is acted upon, instead of that of the white savior. However, that is not the purpose of this novel. And that’s OK (I guess). It is still a very interesting read. It makes a statement for justice. It denounces the acts of violence and corruption that went on in South Africa; and it did it in a white voice for a white audience, to give them perspective and to hold them accountable.

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with this novel was the “Affair.” The protagonist – a good, honest, church-going, exemplary white man – cheats on his wife at the end of the novel, but we knew that was coming. What really annoyed the shit out of me, was how the affair went down. The day before he fucked the new, younger chick, he fucked his old wife. And he was struck by how he was so shocked to see how old she had become. How after 30 years of marriage, her skin with wrinkled, her breasts were sagging, there with a mixture of revulsion and arousal…ugh… I’m sure his hairy balls weren’t dragging between his thighs. I was so glad that I already knew that this motherfucker dies at the end. (FYI, I’m the type of girl who still hates Robert Lowell for The Dolphin).

My judgmental critique on the protagonist aside, this novel does bring to light racial injustice. It highlights one of the most important relationships, that between a parent and their child. A child represents hope for the future. What happens in the black community when children are shot and killed and jailed? These are questions that in our modern, American society we are still facing. We have seen it in Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Milwaukee, and all over the United States. The questions and the struggle for racial equality and racial justice are real and relevant to not only our American society but a global society. The Impact in the black community in regards to over-policing and racial profiling and racial stereotypes are disregarded by the more privileged of our society. A Dry White Season does an excellent job of highlighting this and showing how it’s not just a problem of a few racists in power. What we fight against when we fight against racial injustice is something far greater. For the protagonist, he comes to this conclusion toward the end of the novel:

“today I realize that this is the worst of all: that I can no longer single out my enemy and give him a name. I can’t challenge him to a duel. What is set up against me is not a man, not even a group of people, but a thing, something, a vague amorphous something, an invisible ubiquitous power that inspects my mail and taps my telephone and indoctrinates my colleagues and incited the pupils against me and cuts up the tires of my car and paints signs on my door and fires shots into my home and sends me bombs in the mail, a power that follows me wherever I go, day and night, day and night, frustrating me, intimidating me, playing with me according to rules devised and whimsically changed by itself.”

We face almost the same enemy in American culture, except that instead of wiretapping phones and slashed tires; we have indoctrination through white pride, racial stereotyping, inadequate representation, redlining and an eschewing of history to favor the white male.

Memorable Quotes:

“My time and your time is passing…but the time of our children is still coming. And if they start killing our children, then what was it that we lived for?”

” ‘One always reads about this sort of thing,’ he said absently. ‘One hears so many things. But it remains apart of a totally different world really. One never expects it to happen to someone you actually know.’ ”

“But if you were given a choice, Colonel: wouldn’t you rather be a white child in this country than a black one?”

“You’re white. ” as if that summarized everything. “Hope comes easy to you”.

I’m pairing this book with Einstok‘s Icelandic Toasted Porter. This is one of my favorite beers. It has a nice toasted malt taste and a medium-bodied mouthfeel. It balances the caramel and coffee flavors well, making it a pleasant brew for almost any book.

Format: Paperback.

Danielle Fisher’s A Bit Witchy

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 1.5 Stars

I received this book in exchange for an honest opinion and review.

So I enjoyed the lead character, Lena, in the beginning for a few reasons; one of them being she wasn’t described as being an impossibly perfect girl. In fact, she’s full figured, dirty minded and incredibly clumsy. I enjoyed her self-deprecating way of speaking and thinking.

On the other hand, the men in this book are all overtly horny at all times. They all sound like fuckboys. It was funny the first few pages but after a while, it became trite and annoying. The constant objectification of women and Lena’s somewhat begrudging acceptance of it I honestly didn’t dig.

The lore of this book is hella disjointed. Since it’s the first book in the series, it should have a lot more background information that is explained clearly. The entire guardian angel premise was confusing and was not fleshed out enough. So there’s a god who assigns angels but also reincarnation is a thing but none of this is ever explained. And where did the Fates come from, are they similar to the ones in Greek mythology? In addition to this, the story didn’t flow well. The author introduces characters and then they disappear and you never hear from them again. What happened to them? The battle scene towards the end was an incoherent shit show. I had no idea what the hell was happening. The conversations throughout the book are terrible, often times cringe worthy.

I feel like this book has potential due to its interesting concept but at best this reads like an incomplete first draft. Also, I think the book needs a different title, there is nothing witchy about this book; the title is misleading.

I decided to pair this book with GolfBeer‘s G-Mac’s Celtic Style Pale Ale. There is no distinct flavor to this beer or anything that makes it stand out. The book has potential unlike this beer but I felt it was an appropriate pairing; a mediocre beer for a mediocre book.

Format: E-Book.