Sunday, September 12, 2021

Books Read in August


Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

The story: The Gleesons and the Stanhopes are neighbors in the suburbs; both fathers are NYC cops. But the Gleesons have a full and boisterous house, while the Stanhope's home is quiet and full of tension. Something is wrong with Anne Stanhope. Everyone sees it, but her son Peter bears the bulk of his mother's strange behavior. Brian Stanhope, Peter's father, just ignores it. Peter and Kate Gleeson, the girl next door, are best friends from babyhood. As they grow into teenagers, Anne Stanhope focuses her hatred on Kate and ultimately Kate's family. An event forces the Stanhopes to move, and Kate and Peter mourn the loss of their friendship and blossoming love for years... until they meet again.

My reaction: This book was completely different than I expected, and my expectations were based entirely on the cover and the title. I thought it was going to be a fluffy beach read. SO NOT. Both the title and the cover do not match the content at all. This was an emotionally heavy book, brilliantly and beautiful written. It's full of compassion, tragedy, loss, celebration, redemption, and joy. The characters feel like people I know, so richly drawn, with love and tenderness, flaws and all. This felt like a sweeping family epic, extremely satisfying and bittersweet. Highly recommended.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

The story: This is Doyle's memoir of how she chose happiness over obligation -- how she made the choices (divorcing her husband) that would ultimately allow her to have true love with Abby Wambach.  It's also a series of lectures on various topics, from parenting to marriage to technology to racism and religion. There's a lot here.

My reaction: I loved a lot of what Glennon had to say. While she doesn't have earth-shattering insights, she does express some things quite well. For example, "Brave is not asking the crowd was is brave. Brave is deciding for oneself." And "Now when I sense danger, I believe the cold and leave. When I sense joy, I believe the warm and stay." Not new, but nicely said. However, so much of this book seemed pretentious, sometimes self-righteous, and often way too idealistic. She seems to have everything figured out, especially parenting. I just kinda want to give her a pat on the back and say, "Just wait, honey." Yes, I know that is condescending, but parenting is hard, and she makes it sound like she knows exactly what makes each of her kids tick. As the late and much beloved Nanci Griffith sang, "No one ever really knows the heart of anyone else." I think what I disliked most about this book is the long monologues when she appears to be remembering directing conversations from years past, when she gave advice to people. As a fellow creative nonfiction writer, I understand that we have to construct some dialogue; however, this went on and on for pages as if she actually really said all this. It felt inauthentic at times. I skipped over a lot, but I did enjoy this for the most part. Doyle is strong and brave, and I think she is enjoying a degree of selfishness now that she will relinquish in years to come. 

St. Christopher on Pluto by Nancy McKinley

The story: MK and Colleen are two women who went to Catholic school together as kids and then reconnect in their 40s. Colleen is brash and bossy, while MK just does whatever Colleen wants. The book is a collection of related stories, some with characters distantly related to MK or Colleen, some in the past and some in the present. Each story can stand on its own, but the place is the same: a dying industrial town in Pennsylvania.

My reaction: There was a lot about this collection I loved. I loved the melancholy and memory intertwined with hope. I loved the way the author immersed us in the sad, dying town — one that surely we all recognize, whether we've driven through it or watched this happen to our own small hometowns. A few of the stories just absolutely stunned me in their beauty and compassion. What I did not love about the book is that the stories were strangely and confusingly connected. I wanted them to lead into each other more gracefully or perhaps be told chronologically. Ii couldn't see the purpose to them being so out of order. I found some of the characters hard to remember from story to story, yet it seemed essential that I remember their background information. If I had been reading an actual hard copy book, I would have paged back to find a character's first reference; however, I find that too arduous to do on a Kindle. Device problems, sure, but that's my reality. I also did not really get a grasp on MK, the narrator of many of the stories. I wanted to know her story more. What happened in the years between age 12 and midlife? There seemed to be another few stories that needed to be told: her daughter, her marriage. I just wanted more. But I did enjoy this modern-day Winesburg, Ohio. Definitely worth a read.

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

The story: Everything is happening exactly as Dannie has planned. She's with the perfect man, she gets the promotion she's worked for her whole life, and the perfect man proposes in exactly the right way. And the she has a dream that seems way too real; the details are perfectly clear. It's five years in the future, and the man she's with is not her fiancé. She puts the dream out of her mind and continues on with her perfect life. She's too busy to plan a wedding, though. And then one day, five years later, she meets the man who was in her dream; he's her best friend's new boyfriend. And nothing turns out like she thought it would.

My reaction: I loved this book. I thought it was going to be a lighthearted, fluffy read, but it was not. I usually balk at this kind of premise-- the "I saw my future in a dream" sequence  -- but this worked for me. I'm not saying it was a technique that had to be used to tell the story, and if I think about it too much, it seems contrived and hokey. Maybe I should say: the story worked in spite of Dannie's vision/dream. Anyway, this is a sweet and sad book, and I loved it. 

Books Read in June

 Passing by Nella Larsen

The story: While on vacation in Chicago, Irene runs into Clare, a friend from childhood. It takes a while for Irene, a light-skinned Black woman, to realize this is Clare, because Clare is passing as a white woman. Irene is extremely uncomfortable with Clare's secret -- especially when she meets Clare's racist husband. He thinks Irene is white, too. Clare's been happy the past couple of decades, but reconnecting with Irene stirs up a yearning in her to be part of the Black community. When Clare starts coming to Harlem and inserting herself in Irene's life, things get very rocky all around.

My reaction: I listened to this book on Spotify, and it was absolutely amazing. It was first published in 1929 and is just as relevant today as it was nearly 100 years ago. The characters are rich and complex, Larsen's prose is lovely, and the subject itself is fascinating to me. I was curious to see if a movie had ever been made based on the novel, and behold! This was actually a 2021 Sundance Film, and Netflix recently purchased it! This is a short novel and well worth the read. Highly recommended.

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

The story: Thirteen-year-old Duchess is a self-proclaimed outlaw and the fierce protector of her little brother, Robin. She cleans up after her mother, Star, and makes sure Star doesn't overdose or choke on her own vomit. Star's life has not been easy. Her little sister died in a terrible accident when she was a child, and Star's high school boyfriend, Vincent, has been in prison for her murder since he was a teenager. Star is barely holding things together; Walk, the sheriff and Vincent's best friend, tries to keep both her and the kids alive. 

My reaction: I loved the book. It's devastating and hopeful. The characters are so well drawn that I could read this as if I were watching a movie, and I would love to see a sequel to this with a grown-up Duchess. Highly recommended.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

The story: High up in the Swiss Alps, a luxury hotel opens its doors to its first guests. The hotel was once a sanatorium, and it's filled with relics of the past — intentionally decorated with medical paraphernalia, treatment devices, and more. Elin and her boyfriend are among the hotel's first guests; her brother, Isaac, and his fianceé, both part of the staff, are throwing an engagement party. Elin is a detective, recently put on leave after an accident which left her with PTSD. Oh, and Elin and Isaac lost their brother when they were small children, and Elin thinks Isaac killed him. Oh, and there is a huge snowstorm, and bodies start showing up. And no one can get out because snow. And more bodies and more snow...

My reaction: What just happened? What? This book had tremendous potential. I was so ready to get swept up in a hotel worthy of The Shining. But nope. This book was its own blizzard, swirling and blurry and buried in confusion. Too much happened, the characters were flat, the plot was riddled with holes, and the ending was utterly deflating. 

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalilia Harris 

The story: Nella is an editorial assistant in her mid-20s in a prestigious publishing company, and she is the only Black employee at her particular level. She is initially thrilled when another Black assistant is hired. Hazel is friendly and so likable... until she is too likable. She immediately charms all the higher-ups, and Nella feels threatened and undervalued. All the changes she'd been trying to make, all the workplace diversity she's encouraged -- Hazel comes in and seems to instantly sway the editors, all while seeming to bow to them. Who IS Hazel? 

My reaction: This book is marketed as The Devil Wears Prada mixed with Get Out. OK. I can see that somewhat. I really appreciated look at what it might be like to be the only Black woman in a totally white office. The descriptions of micro-aggressions and code-switching were fantastic. I liked Nella a lot, but I also got super irritated with her. I wanted her to stand up to Hazel. I wanted her to stand up for herself more, to call Hazel out, to tell people what was going on. I wanted Kendra to save her. I didn't always understand everything that was going on with OBGs and the resistance. The could have been my own fault as a distracted reader, or it could have been the author's failure to provide clarity. I didn't love this book but I am glad I read it.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Books Read in May

The Book of Lost Names by Kristen Harmel

The story: Eva Traube and her mother escaped from Paris in 1942 to a small village in France. They have two goals as Polish Jews: to survive and to find Eva's father, who was taken by Nazis. But Eva is unwillingly, at first, pulled into the Resistance because of her excellent forgery skills. She spend the next several years hiding in plain sight, forging thousands of documents for Jewish people fleeing for their lives. She's especially disturbed by the children, who have to take on new names. How will they remember who they really are when the war is over? She and another forger, Remy, come up with a code and record their names in a book. Sixty years later, this book resurfaces and Eva, now an elderly librarian living in NYC, heads back to Paris to claim it. As she does so, she remembers her years as a resistance worker and her love for Remy.   

My reaction: The story itself was intriguing and inspiring, but the writing was stiff and the dialogue was so atrocious I could barely read this at times. I mean, bad. And the characterization: dreadful. Eva's mother was ridiculous. No mother goes from being a daughter's best friend to being a harpy who finds her daughter despicable, even in the midst of war. In fact, in such a traumatic time, one would expect the mother to be even kinder and stronger. The way Harmel chose to portray that whole relationship made no sense. And again — that terribly stilted dialogue just made me want to rip pages. This should have been a fantastic story, but the characters felt flat, rushed, and annoying.      

     The author missed an opportunity here to really focus in on the children themselves and the idea of being erased, as an individual and as a nation. My advice: you might read this to get a further picture of the Resistance, but go into this knowing it has serious problems.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (audio version)

The story: Edna Pontellier is a young wife and mother in the late 1800s who begins to awaken to her real self in her late 20s. She'd just floated through life until this point, but one summer she begins to really feel things, to see the world and her limited place in it. As she becomes increasingly aware of her own wants and needs, so also sees that her own views on womanhood are unorthodox and unacceptable in polite society. She is trapped in her upper middle-class life, utterly alone and despondent as she realizes that the rest of her life will be the same year after year. 

My reaction: It's probably been 30 years since I last read this novella, considered one of the earliest feminist works. Man, this is one of those novels that should be read each decade in one's life, as it has an utterly different effect on me now than it did in my early 20s. I have so much more understanding of the historical struggle of women now. I think when I read this in my 20s, I was strong and independent and didn't really fully grasp just how utterly stuck women were (and, of course, many women still are today). I loved this audio version, read by Hilary Swank on Spotify. (Classic Audiobooks on Spotify are fantastic, by the way!) Highly recommended.

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Subtitled "Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor," this book is a step-by-step guide to examining the reader's own relationship with racism through historical and cultural contexts. Each short chapter focuses on a specific topic, such as white privilege, color blindness, racist stereotypes, and optical allyship, and prompts the reader to consider how each has shown up in their lives. Each chapter includes definitions, explanations, anecdotes, and examples, as well as a list of reflection questions, such as "What emotional outbursts have you had during racial interactions? Or how have you shut down, walked away, deleted everything and pretended nothing happened and hoped no one would notice?" and "How do you and have you stayed silent when it comes to race and racism?"

My reaction: Randy and I actually took an entire year to work through this 28-day book. We picked it up last year at the recommendation of a friend, and we read it only during longish car trips (almost always on our way to a hike). On a few occasions, one or more of our young adult (20s) children were with us as we read and discussed, which was awesome. Each chapter was incredibly thought-provoking and informative, and the reflection questions were intense. We had a year's worth of fantastic and often uncomfortable discussions. I can't imagine going through this book in just a month. Spreading this out over a year gave us time to really absorb and chew on the text, helping us become even more aware of subtle racism and our own part in it. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is open to doing the hard work of examining their own white supremacy and their relationship with racism and working toward doing better. 

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

The story: Lydia and her family live in Acapulco. She owns a bookstore, her husband is a journalist, and together they have a son, Luca, who is eight. She has a close-knit extended family, until one afternoon when a local drug cartel comes in and kills them all except Lydia and Luca. Lydia knows that in order to save her son, they have to leave Mexico and the far-reaching fingers of Javier, the cartel's leader. The book chronicles Lydia and Luca's journey to the United States as they join other migrants from Central and South America.

My reaction: I have to say I could not put this novel down, utterly drawn into Lydia's journey and experiences. That said, I am aware that this book comes with a lot of controversy. Cummins is not a migrant (nor is she Mexican American); this is not her experience. Critics maintain that these stories should be told by authentic voices (#ownvoices), that Chicana and Mexicana writers should be getting their works published widely. Instead, they continue to be passed over and marginalized in and by the publishing and reading world. Mexica readers note that Cummins gets so much wrong in this novel. I respect and appreciate those critiques. Because I do not know the Spanish language, I was not aware of the many mistakes in her usage. I can only imagine how painful and offensive this was to Spanish speakers. She also makes, as I understand it, terrible cultural blunders and perpetuates stereotypes. (Those are just a few of the problems.) As a result of reading reviews of this novel, I have garnered a reading list of books to read by Latinx writers. Some of the books I've added are on this list of 17 Great Books to Read Instead of American Dirt and 8 Books by Latin American Authors to Read Instead of American Dirt.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

The story: This is the story, based on true events and with some characters' real names/jobs, of the American Library in Paris during World War II. The main character is Odile, a young librarian, and the cast of characters that she encounters are many (too many): coworkers, subscribers, soldiers, and more. Odile is immature (or maybe just flat), selfish, and impulsive; but the story itself, of how the library stayed open and also delivered books to soldiers and Jewish patrons, is interesting. Interwoven with the historical story is a modern-day(ish) story that takes place in Montana in the 1980s. In this story, young Lily forms a special friendship with Odile, the French recluse living next door. 

My reaction: The true story of the American Library in Paris is fascinating, and I kept reading this book because I wanted to hear Odile's story. But...the writing was just not good, honestly. The plot was interesting and kept me reading, but it was a struggle. The writing was trite, jumpy, heavy in the wrong places and then light in the wrong places. Shallow. The dual stories —one historical, one present day — format just does not work for me in general. Like most people, I almost always love the historical portion but am bored/annoyed with the modern day story. This technique feels contrived and unnecessary. The dialogue was stiff and completely unbelievable, and the story itself was... jumpy. Scenes jumped around, characters were undeveloped, emotions were flat and did nothing to stir my soul. The whole feeling was being rushed and trying to get in as much as possible. Characters jumped from place to place, and I often had to look back to see if I'd missed something. This felt almost the opposite of the writer's mantra to "show, don't tell." Way too much telling, and the showing part —the dialogue and action —was unsatisfying. I found myself cringing, saying, "Huh?" and rolling my eyes way too much. So... I give this a 2.5/5 rating for the historical significance and because I guess I cared enough about Odile that I wanted to know why she ended up in Montana with a husband named... wait for it... Buck. Because what rancher wouldn't be named Buck?

The Push by Ashley Audrain

The story: Blythe and Fox are blissfully happy, and Fox is ready to start a family. Blythe's childhood was rough—she was neglected, abused, and abandoned— and she's convinced she'll be a terrible mother. When their daughter is born. Blythe just cannot connect with her. She feels none of the warm fuzzies that motherhood is supposed to bring, and she's convinced there is something off about their daughter. She scream when Blythe holds her and she bites kids at daycare, but she's an angel for Fox. And then Sam is born, and Blythe falls madly in love with her son, understanding, finally, the magic of motherhood. But Violet decides she doesn't like Sam, and Blythe's world explodes. 

My reaction: I loved this book. It's a psychological thriller at one level, but it's also an exploration of motherhood, parenting, and marriage. Can a kid really be a bad seed? Is there a "bad mom" gene? How can you trust your instincts if everyone tells you you're wrong? This was definitely not a feel-good read; in fact, it was disturbing, disquieting, and sad. But it was so well written and positively gripping in the way the story is revealed. Blythe was such a vulnerable, richly drawn character; readers can't help but root for her, even as we question her. Warning: this novel deals with difficult topics of abuse and death of a child, so be ready for some heavy emotions. If you can handle that, then I highly recommend this! I couldn't put this one down.

Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan

The story: Maple Street is the perfect place to live, if you're the right kind of person. The Wildes are not the right kind of people, and the perfect people of Maple Street let them know it. Arlo is a former addict and rock star, Gertie shows way too much cleavage, and nine-year-old Larry is just weird. Julia, age 12, fits in for a while, until Shelly, daughter of the queen bee Rhea, turns on her. Right about that time, a sinkhole forms in the neighborhood, and everyone starts to go crazy. Accusations fly, and then someone gets sucked into the sinkhole. Who is to blame? Rhea points her finger at the Wildes, and a witch hunt ensues. In the midst of the witch hunt, secrets come to light and Rhea falls apart. 

My reaction: I have a love/hate relationship with this particular theme: the hierarchy of suburbia, the idea of moving up the social ladder by means of moving into a "good" neighborhood.  I find it fascinating but also so disturbing and so sad. Obviously, this was a main exploration in this novel. What do the Wildes have to do to be accepted into the Maple Street crowd? Why does one person get all the power? How can you fight against a system that's already made up its mind? This is a dark, complex, and disturbing book. I finished it with no clear sense of a recommendation. Did I like it? Not really... and yes. The writing was excellent, and the story itself was completely engaging. But it's so unnerving, so depressing. Why are people so terrible? So easily swayed, so weak, so thoughtless and desperate? This is an excellent illustration of mob mentality, group think, gossip, and social mobility, but it's just so dark, and, well, as murky as that sinkhole. Reminds me a bit of The Stepford Wives, with a dose of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. If that's your thing, read it!

Linked up with Sunday Post at Caffeinated Reader and 

It's Monday! What are you reading? on Book Date

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Books Read in April


The Wife Upstairs by Freida McFadden

The story: Sylvia needs a job, and Adam has one. Adam watched her give the Heimlich maneuver to a choking restaurant patron, and he thinks she can handle his wife, Victoria, who has been in a serious accident. Victoria, once a strong, capable professional, can't walk or speak, and Adam, a novelist, just needs someone to keep her company in their big house out in the middle of nowhere. But Victoria clearly has something to say, if only she can make Sylvia understand. And then Victoria somehow communicates to Sylvia that she has a hidden diary that will tell ALL. Sylvia, however, has fallen for Adam, and just can't believe that Victoria's diary is for real. Who to believe? 

My reaction: Oops! I bought this book for my daughter for Christmas, thinking it was, well, The Wife Upstairs, which it was. Except I really meant to get her The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins, which I read last month. Silly me! I had the title in my head but not the author, so here we are. I was totally sucked into this book, all the while thinking, "This is SO dumb." If you haven't read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, go read that instead. It's the same basic story, sorta, but infinitely better written and engrossing. My recommendation: skip this unless you need a very cheap thrill.

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson

The story: The story opens on a wonderful night: Barack Obama has just won the presidency. Ruth and Xavier, a Black couple, are elated, and Xavier feels this is the right time to start a family. But Ruth has a very big secret. As a teenager, she gave up her baby for adoption. She didn't have a choice in the matter; her grandmother insisted that Ruth give them baby up and took care of all the arrangements. No one except her grandmother and brother even knew she'd been pregnant. Ruth then went to Yale, became an engineer, married Xavier, and put her past behind her. But before she begins a family, she needs to know more about her son... and she really needs to tell her husband about him. She heads back to her small town in Indiana and searches for clues. While she's there, she puts together pieces of her past and meets a little white boy named Midnight who desperately wants a family... and ultimately leads Ruth to her son. 

My reaction: I loved this book. The title is perfect, as I questioned, as Ruth did, the nature of lies. Were the lies in the book kind or selfish? Hurtful or beneficial? Is there a right time for telling the truth? This is a multilayered book, incorporating themes of racism, adoption, class, family, and the ripple effect of decisions and lies. I heard an interview on Fresh Air with Nicole Lynn Lewis, whose memoir Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families would be a compelling partner to this novel. How might Ruth's life—as well as so many other characters' lives— had been different had she kept her son? Johnson's debut novel is highly recommended! It is well written, engaging, and thought-provoking.

The Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti

The story: When Hannah's Aunt Fae dies in a car accident, she and her fiancé return to Brackenhill, where Hannah spent her summers as a child and teenager. Hannah hasn't told Huck much about her past (seems to be a theme in this month's reading!), so he is shocked to find that Brackenhill is actually a castle. As soon as Hannah steps into the castle, she is reminded of just how much she loved this place as a child. It was her comfort, her happy place. Her own life back with her mother and stepfather was terrible and terrifying, but here in Brackenhill, she had been carefree and cared for. Aunt Fae and Uncle Stuart truly loved her and her sister, Julia. But on that last summer, Julia disappears. There's no body, no sign of foul play —she's just gone. Hannah has been convinced all these years that Julia ran away, and now she is determined to figure out what really happened.

My reaction: I was both wrapped up in this book and annoyed with it. I think it could have used one more revision, honestly, to knock out some of the repetition and sharpen the focus. As so often happens, this novel was intriguing for a good two-thirds of the way through, and then the ending just fell apart.  It's the kind of novel you finish and think, "Huh? Did I like this?" For one thing, Brackenhill Castle itself is confusing. Hannah has wonderful, warm feelings about the castle, but it's frankly portrayed as an evil character. Moretti sets up an atmosphere of haunting, complete with a sinister basement. (DON'T EVER GO IN THE BASEMENT!) And yet Hannah loves this place. It was confusing. Is she comforted or terrified? Is the castle good or evil? Or is the answer supposed to be just, "yes!" There were a lot of extra characters in the novel who just seemed a distraction, and we're never really sure what happened in the end. I give it a three out of five stars for a middle-of-the-road read. 

Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The story: The title pretty much says it all. This is the historical perspective that never gets told. The one that is ignored, pushed aside, and buried. As Dunbar-Ortiz writes:

US history, as well as inherited Indigenous trauma, cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against Indigenous peoples.

This book tackles just that: the U.S. crimes against Indigenous peoples. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, is quoted at the beginning of one chapter as saying: 

Our nation was born in genocide.… We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. 

Dunbar-Ortiz traces the history of the US in its interactions with the Indigenous people. Or rather, its destruction of the Indigenous people. So much more than utter disregard, but a purposeful annihilation of millions of people. 

My reaction: I wrote back in January that Isabel Wilkerson's Caste is a book every American should read, and I will make that plea again for this one. We should also be talking about this and teaching this to our children and in our schools. It's a hard truth, an ugly truth — but we have to acknowledge that the U.S. was created by people with no regard for lives other than white European ones. I read this as part of a special book discussion group, hosted by a friend whose life as been deeply affected by her family's Cherokee roots. As part of our group, she read to us from her memoir-in-progress. The particular passages she read included visits to see her grandmother in Cherokee, NC, on the reservation and in the town itself. It was a wonderful companion to the book — her one small story of how poverty and loss of land affected just one family. Her story is told by thousands of Indigenous people through the generations. 

Like Caste, the book ends with a call to action and a challenge:

That process rightfully starts by honoring the treaties the United States made with Indigenous nations, by restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks and land and all stolen sacred items and body parts, and by payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations. In the process, the continent will be radically reconfigured, physically and psychologically. For the future to be realized, it will require extensive educational programs and the full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonized Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations.

Like Caste, everyone should read it.

My other most recent reviews are on my Books Read in March post.

Linked up with Top Ten Tuesday at the Artsy Reader Girl.


Friday, April 16, 2021

Books Read in March

 Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.

"…We all have this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine. When this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath. because we made it through another day."

The story: A bank robber. A man who jumps off a bridge and the girl who doesn't. A real estate agent, a couple of cops, and a few people in and out of love. Mothers and fathers. Lovers and lost loves. This beautiful, tender novel features a cast of characters who are accidentally held hostage and who hold themselves hostage with secrets too painful to share. Their anxiety is palpable... but sometimes, when you share just a little bit, the anxiety can be relieved, and hope can be restored —if everyone works together. 

My reaction: Fredrik Backman does it again. HOW DOES HE DO IT? Once again, Backman took me by surprise, made me fall in love with characters, and got me all choked up. This novel took me a little bit to get into but once I did, well, I never wanted it to end. His rhythm and pace, as well as the connectedness of the stories, reminds me so much of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, which is one of my all-time favorite books. 

The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

The story: Laura Lyons and her family live in the NYC Public Library, where her husband is the superintendent. They seem to have a wonderful marriage, and then Laura decides she simply must pursue her journalism degree; her husband suggests she wait a year until their finances are better. Suddenly, she sees him in a new light. He's holding her back, and she pursues the degree anyway. She meets a whole new crowd as a result of journalism school, and her life changes. In the meantime, books are missing from the special collections at the library, and her husband is blamed for the thefts. The second story alternates chapters with this one. Sadie works at the library

My reaction: I love the setting of this novel. Imagine living inside the NYC Public Library! Fans of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler know what I'm talking about. This novel has a lot of the same issues I complained about in last month's book club novel also by Fiona Davis, The Dollhouse. It's jumbled. We're here and then we're there and squirrel! Way too much isn't explained. The dual stories are better connected in this one, for sure. Davis starts strong, but ultimately way too much happens, the characters are poorly drawn, the action is outrageous (way too many coincidences, for one), and her messages seem didactic and yet confusing and contradictory. I did enjoy the peeks into early 20th century feminism as well as the book trade, but otherwise... too much eye rolling and "what just happeneds??" going on in my head. 

The Reckoning by John Grisham (audiobook)

The story: Small town Clanton, Mississippi's local war hero and respected resident Pete Banning kills the pastor. And 18 hours later, we find out why. In the 16 hours between the killing and the big reveal, we get the complete story of Pete Banning, including an entire extremely detailed section on his wartime experience in the Philippines, his courtship and marriage; plus every detail of his son Joel's life (loved his meeting with Faulkner), a little on his daughter, and lots on his wife. 

My reaction: I have John Grisham issues. I've written about this before, and yet I keep going back to him. This time, we listened to this as an audiobook all the way to Florida and back and then a few more hours even. 18 hours of a story that could easily have been half that long. I mean, Grisham is a great storyteller. He is terrific at building and maintaining suspense. We cared about these characters. We were sucked in, waiting for the great reveal. Which was... a big thud. A big Are you freaking kidding me? Ugh. So much wrong with the big reveal. I won't say what it was, but it was not only disappointing but terribly trite. It was just an old, old story that needs to stop being told. Randy and I felt like Grisham really wanted to tell the story of the Bataan death march, which is the whole middle section of the book. It was interesting, for sure, but it was absolutely not necessary. Grisham is so good at nonfiction; in my 2007 review of An Innocent Man I wrote that "Grisham needs to pursue writing nonfiction a little more often," and I'm sticking with that. Why not write an actual account of one of the survivors of Bataan, rather than squeezing this in with this novel? Anyway, I felt ripped off at the end of this novel, as well as annoyed throughout for many reasons, but particularly for Grisham's stereotypical, rude treatment of Black characters. (He actually uses the term "colored." For real. But there's so much more.) Also, for the last few hours, we were rolling out eyes at all the completely extraneous details and shouting "GET ON WITH IT, JOHN!" My recommendation: skip it.

The Survivors by Jane Harper

The story: After a decade away, Kieran returns home to his tiny coastal village in Tasmania to help his parents. His father is struggling with dementia, and it's time for them to pack up and move into assisted living. Kieran left for a good reason: the summer after he graduated from high school, a huge storm struck and lives were lost —because of him. When he heads into the local cafe with his wife and newborn daughter, he can feel all eyes upon him, accusing him. And then tragedy strikes again, and as the townspeople and official investigate this new murder, all kinds of secrets surface.

My reaction: I absolutely loved this book. This is my introduction to Jane Harper, and I will definitely be reading more. Reviewers seem to like this one a bit less than her others, so I'm super excited to read The Dry, Force of Nature, and The Lost Man, too. Harper is a wonderful writer. Her characters are richly drawn, her dialogue spot on, and the mysteries about what really happened were revealed slowly and satisfyingly. I love the long ending. So many books I've read lately reduce the ending to a quick wrap-up, as if the writer herself got tired of the book and declared, "I'm done." Not so with The Survivors. This is everything I love in a book: a long story with plenty of backstory, a setting that acts as another character, a true mystery, excellent writing, strong and likable characters, and just the right amount of tension. Highly recommended. 

Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker

The story: Subtitled "The Guide to Being Glorious You," this is a "embrace who you are,"  "you can do it" and "we're all in this together" book. It's divided into five self-reflective categories: who I am, what I need, what I want, what I believe, and how I connect. The chapters within those categories explore strategies, offer stories, and provide encouragement for navigating who we are and feeling exuberant (or at least okay) with that. This is listed as "Christian Women's Issues," but the theology is light-handed but extremely refreshing. 

My reaction: We chose this book for our small group (six women) over the past year -- pandemic year. At first, we were all super excited and found relief and connection in this book. We loved the dismantling of what it means to be a "Christian woman." We loved knowing we aren't alone in our questions and searching. Ten months later, we were all thrilled to be done with it. I don't think that's a reflection on the book or Jen Hatmaker. I think we transitioned, as the rest of the world has, from exploring ourselves to being sick of exploring ourselves! Toward the last third of the book, sick of Zoom and longing for normalcy, we became annoyed with Jen's cheerleading and capital letters and LET'S GO GIRL rah-rahs. Somehow, at the end of a year of isolation, perhaps it's been difficult for us to connect with who we were pre-pandemic. Our values have shifted. Our inner eye is tired. I also think this book would be much more appreciated by women in their 30s-40s, and we are all in our mid-40s and 50s. Also, I don't recommend spreading this out over nearly a year! This could be a quick read but a kind and thoughtful one, if read at the right time in one's life.

When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O'Neal

The story: Sisters Josie and Kit has a terrible and wonderful childhood. Their parents, free-spirited restaurant owners, were so obsessed with their own lives that they completely neglected their daughters, who ran wild on the California beaches. Fortunately, they have Dylan, an informally adopted older brother, to keep them straight, help them with their homework, teach them to surf, and basically care for them as if he were their parent. And then tragedy strikes when an earthquake completely shakes up their lives. Nothing is ever the same after the earthquake. The sisters drift apart, and Josie dies in a terrorist attack on a train Or does she? One day Kit and her mother see a face on a screen that looks exactly like Josie, and the search begins. 

My reaction: I absolutely loved this book. O'Neal does a masterful job of revealing the story bit by bit through flashbacks interwoven with the current day story of Kit and Josie. Each character is carefully, lovingly developed. I was rooting for both sisters -- I wanted Kit to find Josie, and yet I wanted Josie to be able to keep the beautiful new life she'd made for herself. Honestly, I was just utterly wrapped up in the entire story and was so sad when it was over. Some of the issues in the book are hard, but it is well worth the emotional investment. Highly recommended.

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

The story: The is a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre. Jane falls in love with Eddie. Eddie has a secret wife, well, upstairs. And so the story goes.

My reaction: Honestly, I tend to steer clear of retellings of classic stories.  Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels ever, so I probably would not have picked this up had I realized what it was about. But... I liked it! As a true Jane Eyre fan, I appreciate all the characters being included: the insipid St. John Rivers shows up as John Rivers, Jane's sniveling, sneaky roommate. Rochester's daughter, Adele, is Eddie's dog in this version; Jane is the dog walker. In fact, she's the dog walker for all of Thornfield Estates, the ritzy subdivision. I thought Hawkins' reimagining was fun, and there are a few twists that made me smile. I would actually recommend this for fans of Jane Eyre, if you're up for a playful adaptation.  

Love, Life, and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick

The story: This is Daphne Sheldrick's lovely memoir of growing up in Kenya, from her early childhood to her many years as the warden's wife of Tsavo Park, a wildlife refuge. Sheldrick was a mother to hundreds of animal orphans, from a weaver bird to a mongoose to rhinos and, most famously, as an elephant keeper. She is the first person to ever successfully raise an orphaned baby elephant to adulthood. Woven in with her animal tales are her people tales -- her loves, her losses, and her friendships. 

My reaction: This is a book I would probably never have read on my own— and that's why book club is so wonderful! I absolutely loved this sweet memoir. I listed to this one, and Virginia McKenna is an absolutely delightful narrator. I was utterly wrapped up in Daphne's life, rooting for the animals, rooting for her. You can't help but fall in love with each animal and with Tsavo Park and, of course, with Daphne. She had an incredible life and shares that with her readers so beautifully. I learned so much about all kinds of African animals! I don't know that I would have enjoyed the book quite as much if I'd read it; I think McKenna's narration feels as if Daphne herself is telling the tale. Highly recommended! 

Girl A by Abigail Dean

The story: Lex is the girl who escaped the House of Horrors. Once identified by the press and police only as Girl A, she's now a successful attorney, trying to live a normal life. But her past haunts her; how could it not? She and her brothers and sisters grew up in utter poverty, starved, neglected, isolated, and, ultimately, held captive by their parents. She wants only to forget it all, but when her mother dies in prison, Lex is appointed executor of the estate. She has to go back and face her story, her childhood home, and her fellow captives: her six siblings. Each of their stories — during and after their childhood — is different. Each has coped in a different way, and their bonds to each other are tenuous and complicated.

My reaction: I absolutely loved Dean's debut novel. It was emotionally tough to read at times (OK, most of the time) because the subject matter is unthinkable, but it's utterly engaging and so well written. Abigail Dean handles the story with grace, allowing these fictional siblings their dignity and giving the reader enough detail to let us see the horror but without going into extraneous, over-the-top description. This is somewhat along the lines of Educated, Tara Westover's memoir. Although this is a work of fiction, we all know that horrors like this do occur. Highly recommended.

Linked up with The Sunday Salon at Readerbuzz and  It's Monday! What are you reading? at Book Date

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Next Up: Books on my Spring TBR List

What's next on my reading list is mostly based on what becomes available on my e-READS library holds, as well as squeezing in my book club's monthly choice. There are also a couple books I'm working through slowly, a chapter every couple of weeks.

 Currently Reading

Next up (library e-reads):

For Book Clubs:

(I'm  listening to Love, Life, and Elephants)

This is for a discussion group initiated by a college friend of mine with a group of women I don't know (i.e., not either of my regular book clubs). My friend, whose parents grew up in and around Cherokee, NC (including on the reservation), will also be reading a few excerpts from her memoir-in-progress.

Coming soon on my library wait list for e-reads:

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (wait time: 2 weeks)*

What My Mother and I Don't Talk About by Michele Filgate (wait time: 2 weeks)*

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson (wait time: 2 weeks)*

 {*YIKES! Three books coming at the same time -- my usual predicament!}

Girl A by Abigail Deen (wait time: 6 weeks)

Four Hundred Souls by Ibram X. Kendi (wait time: 10 weeks)

The Paris Library by Janet S. Charles (wait time: 14 weeks)

Physical Books on my Shelf

I prefer to read on my Kindle because I have terrible eyesight! But I do have dozens of actual books that are waiting to be read. These are at the top of my gigantic stack:

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie: This is for July book club, but it's over 600 pages, so I should start it in June!

The Wife Upstairs by Frieda McFadden: Borrowed this one from my daughter.

Kindred by Octavia Butler: My younger son read this in his freshman English class last year, and I keep seeing references to it. Definitely looking forward to this one.

Pylon by William Faulkner: My older son, who somehow has ALL my Faulkner books, gave me this one for my birthday. It's one of only a couple of Faulkner's novels that I haven't read.

Twelve books for spring seems like just the right goal... but I find that surprises always come along!

Linked up with Top 10 Tuesday at That Artsy Reader Girl

Monday, March 1, 2021

Books Read in February

 Woman 99 by Greer Mcallister

The story: It's the mid 1800s, and Charlotte's beloved older sister, Phoebe, suffers from what appears to be bipolar disorder. Her parents commit Phoebe, who they consider to be an embarrassment to the family, to an insane asylum. Charlotte absolutely cannot let Phoebe rot away there, and she hatches her own insane plan: she'll get herself committed to the asylum so that she can bring Phoebe home. By appearing to be suicidal, Charlotte gets sent to the asylum. She is shocked and horrified to discover that many of the women have been committed merely because they were somehow not "proper" women: they suffered from postpartum, loved the "wrong" person, or perhaps their husbands were just tired of them. She learns their stories while searching for Phoebe, and she also considers her own life and pending wedding.


My reaction: I've always been both drawn to and terrified of books about asylums. The tension is real! I grew up on Seneca Lake, roughly across and down some from The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane, and Willard, as we called it, loomed largely in our young imaginations. I used to terrify myself by imagining that an escaped inmate would row a boat across the lake and land on our beach. Anyway... it's always been a strange fascination of mine. The thought of Charlotte willingly entering an asylum was both fascinating and unbelievable to me. I enjoyed very much the descriptions of the various wards, each focused on a different "ailment": love, silence, oversexualization, melancholy, etc. And I loved that Charlotte quickly recognizes that so many of the women in the asylum are there simply because they are inconvenient in some way. This is basically storage for women who dare to buck the system. There were definitely times that the book was too repetitive and drawn out, and some scenes seemed quite implausible; however, I found the book ultimately satisfying. For a book about an asylum, it was not graphic nor horribly disturbing. Recommended! 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The story: This is a marvelous story of a brother, a sister, and their rightful inheritance, the Dutch House, a grand house purchased by their father and ripped out from under them at his unexpected death. For the rest of their lives, Danny and Maeve try to figure out what went wrong and how to get it all back. They move forward with their lives when they are apart, but each time Danny and Maeve get together, they pick apart every detail of the events that led up to their father's death. Other people in their lives fill in details now and then, and as they leave middle age, the siblings finally have some closure as questions are answered.

My reaction: Ann Patchett is just the real deal. What a storyteller! Everything about this works together. There are no loose ends, no wondering for me. The characters, including the house itself, are all richly drawn. It's somewhat of a Hansel and Gretel tale, with an evil stepmother, a kind but distant father, and that irresistible gingerbread house that draws them back again and again. I love Ann Patchett, and I love this book.

After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

The story: It's just after the Civil War, and Marion has spent the past year as a battlefield nurse. While she was gone, her beloved sister, Alice, was committed to an asylum by their brother and his wife. And then Alice fell off the roof of the asylum and died. Everyone assures her that Alice committed suicide, but Marion knows she would never do that. So how did Alice get to the roof, and who pushed her? Let it go, her brother and his wife tell her, but she cannot rest until she finds out how Alice fell.

My reaction: Eh. Well, first I have to say how weird it is that I read yet another book this month set partially in an asylum in the mid-1800s. Between this and Woman 99, the latter is far more interesting. This one had so many missing pieces. It was terribly disjointed, and at times I felt as if I were in an institution. None of the character, except the dead Alice and the nephew, were particularly likable, and I like books with likable characters. I'd give it a solid 3.5. 

The story: Lucia and Miranda are Chinese-American sisters, fiercely loyal to each other. Miranda, as the elder sister, is protective and motherly toward Lucia, who is carefree and impulsive, a girl who thoroughly enjoys each moment of life. Both sisters are independent and brilliant, but as Lucia heads into her 20s, she develops a mental illness. Only Miranda knows about it for awhile, until Lucia marries Yonah. Within the first year of their marriage, the "serpents" begin tormenting Lucia. The voices in her head drag her down, and Miranda is there to rescue her. Their relationship suffers, as Miranda becomes more and more insistent that Lucia take her medicine, and Lucia resists. Lucia spends the next decade or so in and out of hospitals, in and out of relationships, and in and out of motherhood. Miranda is walks the tightrope of caring too much and letting go.

My reaction: What are the chances that I would read yet a third book centering on two sisters, one of each pair with a mental illness, in the span of a month? This was totally not on purpose; I just grabbed the books when they became available on the library's electronic reading system. This is my favorite one by far. This book is so beautifully written. Each of the characters — Lucia, Yonah, Manuel, Esperanza, and Miranda — is richly brought to life. We are especially submerged in Lucia's world— from vibrant and then impoverished neighborhoods in NYC to rural Ecuador. Lee's  perspective on various immigrant experiences in the U.S. was powerful and so lovingly written. I especially appreciated the section on Lucia and Manuel, an Ecuadorian immigrant who is constantly afraid of being deported. Lee paints all her characters with such tenderness and such vivacity. Miranda and Lucia are a classic pair: the Martha and Mary, the steady worker and the prodigal daughter, one responsible and one reckless; but both fight demons in their own way. Highly recommended. These characters will stay with me for a long time.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The story: This is a sweeping story of a family through many generations and across continents, beginning with the half sisters, Effia and Esi, who are born into different villages in Ghana in the 1700s. One sister is sold into slavery; the other is taken as an Englishman's Ghanian wife. (He has another back in England.) From there, the novel proceeds through subsequent generations of each sister's line, telling a different  family member's story up until present day. One line goes through Ghanian warfare, the slave trade, and colonization; the other sister's descendants are enslaved people on Southern plantations, convicts in the coal mines, part of the Great Migration, and all the way to today. Ultimately, the two lines meet again in a powerful, hopeful conclusion.

My reaction: Brilliant. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Eye-opening. This is a tremendous undertaking on the part of Gyasi (this is her debut novel), and she absolutely succeeded. Each character's story is told with such love and devotion; it's as if she freed dozens of voices to speak and say, "I am here. I lived, and I loved, and I have a story you need to hear." I wish I had read this in an actual hard copy book rather than on my Kindle because Gyasi includes a wonderful family tree at the beginning that I should have returned to again and again, to keep all the characters straight. I am too lazy to do this on my Kindle. That is a small, reader's issue that has nothing to do with the actual novel itself, which is astonishing. Read it. Pay attention. And then tell someone else to read it. Truly incredible.

And that's it for February! I've started March with Fredrik Backman's Anxious People. So far, so good!

Linked up with It's Monday! What are you reading? at Book Date.