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 fiance√©, 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.