Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: After Visiting Friends by Michael Haines

(It's not your eyes--the photo on the cover is intentionally blurry)
Another friend in bookselling recently made a comment on her blog that there are just too many memoirs being published.  I tend to agree. She also went on to note that there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Again, I tend to agree. The problem with most memoirs is that the authors either don't have a good enough story to tell or they're not skilled enough to tell it well.  And don't even get me started on celebrity memoirs (Steve Martin's Born Standing Up being an exception to any rule. That man is a genius.).

So when I first saw the bound galley of Michael Hainey's After Seeing Friends, I was inclined to dismiss it.  Unknown author. Nondescript title.  I almost put it in the communal staff kitchen where all of the other unwanted galleys go, but then I saw who sent it to me: Wendy Sheanin, the adult marketing director at Simon & Schuster, whose tastes I trust.  And she'd tucked a handwritten note inside of the first page.  I'm a sucker for a handwritten note. And then I see an envelope hand-addressed to me tucked into the middle of the book.  Turns out that unknown-to-me Mr. Hainey is the deputy editor at GQ magazine and he's written me a note by hand on his letterpress stationery (I'm also a sucker for letterpress anything).

Naturally, After Seeing Friends made it into my tote to take home at the end of the day. Luckily for me, Mr. Hainey is possessed of a writing gift AND an interesting story to tell.  By the end of the first chapter I had dog-eared about half a dozen pages. That pattern continued throughout the book.  The GoodReads summary begins: "Michael Hainey had just turned six when his uncle knocked on his family’s back door one morning with the tragic news: Bob Hainey, Michael’s father, was found alone near his car on Chicago’s North Side, dead, of an apparent heart attack."

But was that the entire truth? Various obituaries in the city mention that the elder Hainey had died "after visiting friends," but who were these friends, and why didn't they attend the funeral? It is only when Michael has attained his father's age when he died that he decides to bring his full investigative journalism skills to bear to inquire into the circumstances surrounding his father's death. In Michael Hainey's search for what really happened the night his father died, it's not the 25-year-old cold trail so much as the stymying efforts of his father's former friends and colleagues that nearly prevent the story coming to full light.

Hainey travels from New York to the midwest and back so many times that I lost count, tracking down leads not only in Chicagoland, but in Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, and many points in between. Along the way, the reader gets a front-row show to the golden age of Chicagoland journalism: old school, hard core, and with a code of honor that makes the Mafia look like they're merely playing at it.

Eventually Hainey does get the information he's after, and his main reward is that in losing his lifelong idea of what his father was, he is lucky enough as an adult to truly know his mother; the facade she maintains for her children's sake finally crumbles. For me, though, the real turning point of the story is when he reconnects with his cousin and older brother, and then later attends what would have been his father's 50th high school reunion, where he comes to know his father and where he himself fits within the generations of Hainey family. While Hainey's is a very specific and intimate story, there's an element of the universal permeating his quest: how can we know ourselves if we don't know where we come from? How can we know ourselves if we don't consider our impact on the next generation?

If you are interested in the nature of memory and how it intertwines with history, do yourself a favor and read this book. 

Some of the passages I enjoyed:

On visiting his grandmother in the nursing home: "I gave her a chocolate cream. She raises it to her mouth. A tongue emerges, takes the candy. Like a tortoise I saw at the zoo. She bites, almost in slow motion, chews so slowly I swear I can feel her tasting it ."

A description of Chicagoland as America's meat processing capital: "This was the land of Swift, the kingdom of Armour. It was the beauty of the Industrial Revolution's assembly line turned inside out. Chicago as the disassembly line. Chicago--how fast and how efficiently as creature could be reduced. Rendered. Broken down."

A terrible truth, laid bare, when he and his brother are told about their father's death: "In that moment I think only one thing: how excited I am. Because my whole life up until then, my bother has never cried. Whenever I have cried, he's always teased me, told me I was a baby. I point at him and start to laugh and I say, 'Cry-baby! Cry-baby!' "

"So often I wonder--Do all brothers end up at Kitty Hawk? Flipping a coin to write history. One will fly. The other stands slack-jawed with awe. Maybe chasing his brother. The wind in his face now. The wind that lifts his brother."


Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: You Before Me by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes' new novel Me Before You should come with a warning: do NOT pick this book up unless you have a box of tissues by your side and several hours to spare. Because once you start reading it, you're not going to want to put it down, and once you do put it down, you're going to be a soggy, wet mess. Believe me, my cat Murray was quite concerned with my state of mind. Then again, anything that interrupts the administering of chin scratches concerns him.

Up until the motorcycle accident that made him a quadriplegic, Will Traynor was both a go-getter and a player--wealthy, handsome, charismatic, and a thill-seeker to boot.  Lou, on the other hand, is from an economically challenged working class family--bright enough to have gained university admittance, but required to join the workforce to help her family pay the rent when her sister gets pregnant and her father gets laid off. When the cafe where she's been working as a waitress for the last several years closes, she desperately accepts a six-month contact taking care of Will. Will and Lou couldn't be more different on the surface, so when they form an uneasy alliance that grows into the truest friendship either has ever known, nobody is more surprised than they are.

The catch, and of course there's a catch, is that Will and his mother are keeping a secret from Lou, and when she discovers what it is, she reacts with her characteristic passion, matched only by her pigheadedness.  But might Will's secret haunt Lou to the point she makes the biggest mistake of her life?

Let me clear: this is not a book with complicated twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing.  If you pick this book up to read, you will have a fair idea of the story-arc before you're even fifty pages into it, as it's the story itself that pulls you in; but the class issues, the family relationships, and the importance of having somebody to believe in you when you no longer believe in yourself give this book a heft that matches its heart.