Customer Reviews: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving: A Novel
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on August 28, 2012
Life is near-constant revision, because even the best-laid plans go awry. Take, for instance, the writing of this review of Jonathan Evison's new novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. I planned to tell you how the novel is part roadtrip buddy comedy, part meditation on parenting, and part blueprint for pulling yourself up by the bootstraps when you hit rock bottom. I hoped to convey how funny and cool and downright irreverent (German Knuckle Cake, anyone?) Evison's writing is. And I was sure I'd leave you with some notion of how important it is to roll with life's punches.

But, instead, this: You should read this book because it'll make you happy. I promise.

(Okay, just kidding. We won't stop there. That'd be silly. And cliché. And probably a little frustrating for you.)

So yes, this novel will make you happy, even though, for the most part, it's a profoundly sad book -- main character Benjamin Benjamin (never trust a guy with two first names, especially when those two first names are the same first name) is down to his last few bucks. His wife Janet is divorcing him after a mysterious "disaster" involving their two children, the story of which Evison weaves in periodically with the "real time" story. And Benjamin, having completed a course in caregiving, is making $9 an hour caring for a 19-year-old, wheelchair-bound dude named Trev who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

A lot of the fun of the novel is the back-and-forth banter between Trev and Ben. They discuss girls ("Look at the turd-cutter on her", e.g.), and watch the Weather Channel, and eat waffles. And every Thursday, they go to the movies. The novel really kicks into gear when Ben convinces Trev's mother to allow him to take Trev on a roadtrip to Utah (they live in Washington state) to see Trev's father Bob, a loser who walked out on the family when Trev was diagnosed with his disease, but who has been clumsily trying to make amends. (In one scene, he tries to ingratiate himself by bringing them KFC.)

They meet some interesting folks on the road and see some interesting things. And of course, the trip, like life, doesn't exactly go as planned. As Ben says, "Look, I didn't plan any of this, believe me. Not this trip, not these passengers, and definitely not what I left behind. I planned like hell for something else entirely. All this just happened."

A lot of questions keep you turning the pages quickly. Will Ben and his wife reconcile, or will they at least forgive each other? Will Trev forgive his father? And what really is the "disaster" that befell Ben's children?

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is the second Evison novel I've read, after last year's West of Here, which I also loved. But the two novels are very, very different. (And this is where the reviewer says something glib, like "it's hard to believe they came from the same writer. It's a testament to Evison's talent. Etc.) That's okay though. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving shows that, when you have nothing to lose, everything else becomes gain-able. (Cue the silly movie trailer music.) Seriously, though, five stars - one of my favorites of the year.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon May 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )|Verified Purchase
While reading The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, I kept struggling with the reasons why this book didn't seem totally gripping for me, especially since it had received so much acclaim, so many awards (Amazon's Best of 2012, Washington Post notable book). So I had high expectations. But while I found the book to be a pleasant enough read it never rose above "just average" for me.

The basic situation in this book: Benjamin has been on a downward spiral, with his wife pushing him to sign divorce papers and his children lost to him. There has been a major tragedy in his life (those details are best left for readers to discover). In an act of desperation, he takes a class which teaches him the art of caregiving. Then he lands a job looking after Trevor, a young man with muscular dystrophy.

The job is as difficult as one might expect. Ben's pay is minimal. He has to deal with Trevor's mother, a formidable and fiercely protective woman. And Trevor's father? He has been out of the picture for quite some time.

The most painful part of reviewing for me is the obligation to provide my honest reaction to a book while realizing writers work very hard to reach readers. So I don't want to discourage possible readers from giving this book a chance - and it is also worth noting that many other reviewers liked the book.

But here's why I didn't (and I'll also note the strong points of this novel) :

Neither Trevor nor Ben seemed fully fleshed out to me. I wanted to know more about them. I wanted to be intrigued by their interactions and drawn into their lives. I wanted the story to have a lingering impact.

The novel does have some strong points. As I worked my way through it, I couldn't help wondering: was it Trevor who was primarily caring for Ben or was it the other way round? This was one of the most powerful themes, the way each pushed the other, struggling to find meaning, independence and balance in their lives.

Most of the chapters are a mix of past and present events. As an example, one chapter might focus on Benjamin and Trevor's daily routine while the next could reveal clues to Ben's past as well as his ongoing struggles with his wife. Ben is in denial about the divorce.

So it is very convenient to take Trevor on a road trip across America (in spite of strong reservations from Trevor's mother). The mission is supposedly to find Trevor's father but they are eventually joined by a cast of eccentric people along the way. Then there is the eerie car which is trailing them. Who is pursuing them? Why?

All of these events could have resulted in a strong, exciting novel - and I kept rooting for it to take flight, to meet my hopes. But it simply never came together for me. I finished it because I wanted to give the fairest review possible. I felt I owed that much to the author. I'll certainly check out his next book. Even my favorite authors may have a book or two that falls flat.

I did feel some interest in discovering what happened to Ben. Would he reconcile with his wife? Would he come to terms with his pain? And how would the trip affect Trevor? This was enough to keep me reading until the novel's conclusion. But even after discovering what answers I could the book simply didn't take hold.
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VINE VOICEon August 28, 2012
Thirty-nine year old Ben Benjamin was a husband, a father and a stay-at-home dad, before "the disaster" that took the lives of his two young children. Now estranged from his wife, he is unqualified for most jobs, and hasn't even interviewed for a job in eleven years around the time his daughter Piper was born. A broken man, Ben feels like he has very few options when it comes to jobs, so he decides to register for a twenty-eight-hour program called, "The Fundamentals of Caregiving."

His first job assignment is to care for a nineteen year old young man named Trevor who has Muscular Dystrophy, and their beginnings with one another are rocky to say the least. Trevor is mostly paralyzed and angry with the world about how his life has turned out. His father left him and his mother shortly after he was diagnosed with MD. As a result, Ben quickly realizes that there are certain things that happen in caregiving that you just can't learn about in a short program like the one he attended.

Before long Ben and Trevor do find a rhythm that works for them. The two even embark on a road trip with Trevor's wheelchair van to visit Trevor's sick father, the man who left him when he was very young. Wackiness ensues and the quirky people they meet along the way makes for some colorful and entertaining reading. The road trip is an uplifting experience which allows both Ben and Trevor to make peace with what has happened to them and begin to accept and heal.

This novel is worth reading, in my opinion. Sometimes I find reading about emotionally damaged characters to be extremely difficult, but when humor is infused, which was the case with this novel, the experience can be ultimately uplifting. I was surprised to learn that the author was inspired to write this novel, at least in part, by a tragic situation involving his sister some thirty-nine years earlier when she was just sixteen years old.
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on September 6, 2012
With each new novel, Jonathan Evison proves that he can't be pigeonholed as an author. You want an atypical bildungsroman? Read his All About Lulu: A Novel. Looking for an ambitious historical epic? Read his West of Here. You want a buddy, road trip story that transcends that clichéd description? Read his new novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Evison writes with humor, honesty, and a snappy cadence that propels you through the story even when you'd like to take your time relishing his rich characterizations and vibrant landscapes. Each of his characters is trapped by circumstances that are seemingly beyond their control but the joy of this novel is to see how they all begin to wrestle that control back from the beyond, little by little. They are all ready for it, they just have to find the courage and tenacity to do it. Evison reveals a true knack for writing these wayward, flawed characters in such a way that makes them completely relatable and worth rooting for. He writes with depth and heart and even a little bravado, showing the beauty in tragedy, the humor in life, and the power of connection.
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on March 29, 2016
I first learned of Jonathan Evison on my new favorite television show about books, Well Read. The subject of his latest book, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance didn't really appeal to me, but his conversation about writing intrigued me enough to see what else he'd written. Since my latest project is about aging, I thought The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving might be good research.

Benjamin Benjamin enrolls himself in a class on caregiving. He has hit rock bottom and figures it's as good a place as any to start rebuilding his life, even if it only pays $9 an hour. Ben's first assignment is to care for Trev, a young man with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Trev comes with an overprotective mother and a clumsy father who she kicked out of the house long ago. Trev is angry about life in general. That is until Ben becomes his caregiver and his friend.

When I sat down to write this review, a book club discussion came to mind. When you dislike the protagonist, is it a good book or not? Ben is not a likable guy. His marriage and his family have collapsed, he's broke, has a drinking problem, refuses to sign the divorce papers his wife keeps trying to serve him, and the list goes on. Here's the spoiler alert. I might have been more sympathetic to Ben, if I had been told why his life was in such a state of disarray sometime before I had read 75% of the book.

Mr. Evison is the master of creating tension. There were so many great scenes in the book that could keep a reader on the edge of her seat. But I just couldn't warm up to a guy for no reason at all. The author kept me on the hook for far too long until Ben's disagreeable personality became ingrained in my mind and I couldn't change it. It turned out Ben had a pretty good reason for being the way he was, but for me, I remain stuck in between good and not so good.
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VINE VOICEon May 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )|Verified Purchase
I am shocked that (at the time of this review) over half of the reviews for this book give it five stars. Personally, I think four would be generous, but I could understand it. But five? I liked parts of it, but I disliked it as often as I liked it.

For much of the book (the first half more than the second), Ben Benjamin (the protagonist/narrator) can barely observe a woman without saying something demeaning about her appearance. It was so bad that I almost stopped reading. What's worse: the observations of women are often paired with bizarre euphemisms for what the reader can only assume (based on context since I was afraid to google them) are depraved, misogynist sex acts. Although he does this less in the second half of the book, it seems less like character growth and more like distraction due to increased plotting.

I was also frustrated by the many times when I completely failed to understand Ben. Why was he constantly dodging the divorce papers? He knew the divorce was inevitable. He made no efforts to repair the relationship. He just childishly dodged the papers. Other examples (including his rabid defense of Elton) come to mind, but I'll hold off on details to avoid spoilers.

And, for a book that is largely about grieving, I just didn't ever believe Ben's grief. Jonathan Evison admits that "this book represents nothing less than an emotional catharsis for its author," helping him to cope with the grief of losing his sister. The problem is he's working through the grief of losing a sibling as a small child by writing about an adult losing his own children, and I don't think the emotional turmoil translates well. I think that this particular grievance may have been made worse by the fact that I just finished two other novels about grief (How to Talk to a Widower: A Novel (Bantam Discovery) and The Snow Child: A Novel), both of which felt much more poignant.

All that being said, the story was engaging. Despite regularly considering giving up on the novel, I kept reading. I wanted to know what had happened to Ben's children (I'm pretty sure the horrifying scene is going to stick with me for a long time). I wanted to learn more about Ben's father (he turned out to be such a caricature of a pathetic sad sack that I couldn't really believe in him either). There were touching moments of pain and compassion that made me hope the book would redeem itself. But, in the end, I just didn't like/understand/believe in Ben enough to care.
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on December 10, 2015
I feel like I discovered a Picasso painting in my attic. I had never heard of Evison before reading this novel, and now I wonder how I ever missed him. If you're like me, you'll think that you've been reading this book for 30 minutes only to discover that it's 2:00 A.M. and you've been reading for three hours.

On the surface, Evison's writing appears simple, until you start recognizing that he is painting beautiful images and evoking a wide range of emotions. This book could have been a maudlin mess of melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer, but Evison manages to avoid this while presenting a very emotional work. His characters undergo an Odyssey that I was extremely willing to go along with.

Lastly, I will say that this novel also has comedy liberally interspersed throughout the narrative that oftentimes created a belly-laugh for me. I will be reading more of Evison's work and I hardily recommend him to you.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Ben Benjamin is a man whose life painfully capsized while he was in the process of making other plans. At the start of this novel, we learn that he has lost just about anything worth having: his wife, his young kids, his livelihood, and his ability to make sense about what life is all about.

In a last ditch effort to tread water, he enrolls in a night class called Fundamentals of Caregiving, and finds a minimum wage job as caregiver for a 19-year-old boy named Trevor, whose body is wasting away from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Both are losing their tenuous grip on life, one physically, the other emotionally. Each, in his own way, is crippled.

Yet they bond. Trev is at an age where he is just beginning to figure things out; he is stubborn, sexually frustrated, eager to partake in the life left to him. Ben? He is along for the ride. And before too long, the two of them are off on one last road trip.

Road trips are an overused plot device - from Homer's Odysseus to the recent Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye. Authors love them because they provide a tool to reveal the internal journey of a character and the progress towards a destination. Readers mostly love them because they introduce quirky characters and an element of adventure.

Both are present here. And if there's any doubt, it's essayed by Evison, who writes, "Look, I didn't plan any of this, believe me. Not this trip, not these passengers, and definitely not what I left behind. I planned like hell for something else entirely. All this just happened."

What elevates this novel beyond the constraints of the road trip is the compassion Evison shows for his characters and the bursts of energy and warm-hearted humor along the way. This is a book about a one-time stay-at-home dad who had the worst tragedy imaginable happen (and Evison wisely takes his time letting us in on just what happened in short and poignant flashbacks.) It's about how dads try their best even when the outcomes are unexpected and how becoming a parent requires self-forgiveness and atonement. And it's about how we move forward even in tragedy: "If you're lucky, your life will erode slowly with the ruinous effects of time or recede like the glaciers that carved this land, and you will be left alone to sift through the detritus. If you are unlucky, your world will be snatched out from beneath you like a rug, and you'll be left with nowhere to stand and nothing to stand on. Either way, you're screwed."

Ben Benjamin is unlucky but he finds grace in the most amazing places. Although "nothing is indestructible", Ben and Trev learn that we never lose the ability to reconstruct and build from the ashes.
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on September 8, 2012
In the last few years I have been suffering from a surfeit of empathy in regards to my reading, a juvenile tendency to see myself in protagonist after protagonist to a troubling degree. This may explain the increased amount of genre fiction in my reading fare, as I seek a more comfortable distance between myself and those I read about.

Jonathan's book just about did me in, and I wince in over-identification every time I read a review that describes Benjamin as a loser.

Benjamin's problems are not my problems, Benjamin's grief and loss is not my grief and loss, the loss of one's children, marriage and a lack of a career is not the same as the loss of a carreer, marriage, and subsequent overdose of the ex-wife. . . . but I understand the blur, the disappearance of 2 years or 10 to the purgatorial force of inertia. Most importantly I understand the need for re-invention in order to carry on.

I love this book because it gives no easy answers, no empty platitudes and it has no time for pity . . . and yet through all its hard mindedness . . . there is warmth, humor, love and the possibility of redemption.
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on September 4, 2013
Life sucks. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. But if you hang around long enough and keep your eyes open, you'll find other people whose lives exceed your own's suckiness. This is the second book I've read by Evison (the first was All About Lulu), and I am in awe of his sparkling prose. It is clever, evocative and filled with energy. Once you get into this book, you won't be able to put it down. Ben Benjamin, a former stay-at-home dad, now estranged from his wife, does not have much reason to go on living, but he does. And that may be the overriding message of this book: go on living and amazing things just might happen. With no obvious skills, talents or credentials, Ben completes a course in care giving and becomes "certified." He is now qualified to work for slightly above minimum wage. He is hired to take care of Trev, a paraplegic with muscular dystrophy. The story that follows is touching, funny and at times, profound. The author slowly reveals Ben's past as the reader goes deeper into his character. What a loser! But in so many ways, Ben reveals our common humanity. Ben takes on the enormous challenge of caring for Trev who is every bit a twenty-something guy, sarcastic, edgy and horny, but trapped in a body that won't let him do much of anything. Trev's body is a metaphor for Ben's life. The two main characters bond, inspire and provoke each other to actually start living. The adventure that follows is one great book. Evison has given us another masterpiece. Buy this book now. You won't be sorry.
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