Sunday, July 22, 2018

Go Ask Fannie

Title:  Go Ask Fannie
Author:  Elisabeth Hyde
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0735218560 / 978-0735218567

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read Program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "If I give her enough rope, she'll hang herself, he thought."

Favorite Quote:  "Was there ever a death that involved no regret? ... more often than not, what he first heard in their moment of grief was the word 'should.'"

The "Fannie" of the title is not a character in the book but rather the culinary expert and cookbook author Fannie Merritt Farmer. For the three Blair siblings, the phrase "Go Ask Fannie" is a memory of their mother. They do not treasure the cookbook to which it refers for the recipes (this is definitely not a foodie book) but for the sometimes cryptic notes that cover most of the margins in the book. Sometimes, their mother wrote notes on the recipes. Sometimes, she wrote reminders.  Sometimes, she wrote ideas for stories.

In real time, this book is the story of a few days as all three siblings - Ruth, George, and Lizzie converge on their childhood home in New Hampshire. Their father Murry Blaire still lives there surrounded by his sunflowers, and a lifetime of memories fill the family home.

Each family member brings their own agenda for the weekend. Ruth is the oldest, the practical attorney who is used to mothering her family. George is an intensive care nurse. Lizzie is the one still trying to find herself.

Over the course of a few days, the conversations and the memories cover the lifetime of this family. As is true of all sibling relationships, there is love and there is baggage. A marriage, a Congressional campaign, a career put on hold, the death of a child, and the loss of a spouse become turning points for this family amidst the myriad details that comprise a life.

The fate of the cookbook itself is almost a side story in the book. It lands Lizzie in legal trouble and prompts some of the conversations about their mother. To me, that plot line is fodder to explain the sibling dynamics and a vehicle to bring forth the secrets of the past. It is not relevant in and of itself.

The heart of this book and the most interesting character in the book is the one least present in the book. The Blaire siblings lost their mother when they were children. Through flashbacks and memories, the reader gets a picture a woman who put aside her aspirations for her husband's career but who tried to create a life of her own in the stolen moments of solitude. The image is one many individuals will relate to.  The current story is about the three siblings as adults beginning to understand the woman and coming to terms with the trauma of their childhood. That image too is one many readers will relate to.

Close to the end of the book, Murray reveals the final piece of her story. It is not shown as a memory but presented as a revelation. He always knew. That revelation and the ending goes in an unexpected direction without a definitive conclusion. It shifts the focus from the siblings and their memories to the actual events of the past and leaves me wondering what actually happened. Perhaps, that is deliberate for it is quite true that sometimes we never find the answer; we simply make our peace.

Overall, the book remains a story of family and relationships that many people will identify with, perfect for a summer beach read.


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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Sugar Money

Title:  Sugar Money
Author:  Jane Harris
Publication Information:  Arcade Publishing. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1628728892 / 978-1628728897
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I was tethering the cows out by the pond when a boy came into our pasture saying that Father Cléophas himself want to see me tout suite in the morgue."

Favorite Quote:  "What I saw can never be unseen, never forgotten. All my life, over and over again, that same scene repeating in my mind."

Sugar Money is a very literal title. Set on the islands of Grenada and Martinique in the 1700s, this book is about the control of slaves to work the sugar plantations and to control the money in the islands. What I did not realize before reading the book is that the story is based on actual historical facts - a somewhat obscure incident but history nevertheless. The story is graphic and disturbing in the cruelty depicted; the fact that it is based on history makes it so much more so. Be sure to read the afterword in the book for the author presents the actual history; however, only read it after completely reading the story it includes the historical conclusion of the story.

Emile and Lucien are brothers, both slaves. Emile is considerably older than Lucien, who is still an adolescent. They live on the island of Martinique which is controlled by the French. They were brought here from Grenada by the monks who owned them. The English now control Grenada and the slaves left behind. Emile and Lucien are charged by the monks to return to Grenada and essentially steal back the slaves that the monks feel still belong to them. As slaves themselves, Emile and Lucien really have no choice, but they are presented the "incentive" of seeing this as a rescue mission and thinking about possible reunification with people they love.

Lucien, the younger brother, is the narrator of this story. Through his eyes reflects a certain innocence even to the cruel and graphic description of the treatment of slaves. Families are torn apart. A man is nailed by his ear to a wall. A boy is flogged to the point of having almost no flesh left on his back. A man is tarred and bound to attract flies to add to his torment. The descriptions are graphic, horrifying, and most sadly, so frighteningly real.

Yet, the lens of a child maintains a certain distance from the horror and superimposes on the horror a human being's ability to survive. The beginning of the book in fact sounds more like a tale of adventure than of slavery. The reality is that this "rescue" mission is a task ordered upon slaves to hand other slaves from one master to another. The reader clearly has to read between the lines of what this narrator sees and depicts. This is not an adventurous lark but a tale of stark cruelty. It is an odd contrast at times but accentuates the brutality when the descriptions do come.

The challenge I face with the book is the language. Lucien's childhood is scattered between the French, the English, and the Caribbean languages of the slaves. This mixture ranges from quoting Julius Caesar to deliberately challenging the monks with use of the Caribbean creole. This is likely Lucien's reality, but makes the book it challenging to read.

Regardless, the book introduces me to a history I did not know and brings to life yet another aspect of the brutality of slavery. 


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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Anatomy of a Miracle

Title:  Anatomy of a Miracle
Author:  Jonathan Miles
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0553447580 / 978-0553447583

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On the afternoon of August 23, 2014, Tanya Harris, wheeled her younger brother, Cameron, to the Biz-E-Bee store on the corner of Reconfort Avenue and Division Street in Biloxi, Mississippi."

Favorite Quote:  "Dressing up a fact doesn't change it, or benefit it in any way. It just obscures it."

Cameron Harris is a disabled army veteran. He is a paraplegic as a result of service injuries. He lives in his hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi and is cared for by his sister Tanya. Life is quiet and one note; the highlight of the days is their walks to the local convenience store run by Vietnamese immigrants. Some days, that is the only activity of the day. However, one day while outside the store, Cameron gets out of his chair and walks. A paraplegic walks. A misdiagnosis? A scientific anomaly? A miracle? All of a sudden, this quiet town and Cameron himself are the center of world news.

I have read history brought to life as fiction. This book is unique in that it presents fiction as a researched nonfictional piece of writing down to fictitious acknowledgements at the end for the help provided by the fictional characters in the book. In the day and age of "fake news" claims being bandied around, this book is in essence exactly that. It is fiction presented as news down to its nonfiction-like subtitle - "The *True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, A Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace." The  "*" by the true includes the following explanation:  "a novel." Creative or dangerous in today's environment? I leave you to decide.

The choice of the main character's name - Cameron Harris - is an interesting one. Search the name, and you find ties to fake news. The real Mr. Harris's claim to fame is a purposefully done fake news story in the middle of last US presidential election. He coupled the story with a photograph found by an Internet search; he published it on a website he created for a fake publication titled the Christian Times Newspaper. The story was shared with millions of people. He claimed his motive was to make money. I don't know the author's reasoning for the name choice, but the exact name and the fake news approach of this book seem an interesting thought to ponder.

Getting past that, the issues this book gets into are about what you expect with miracle in the title. Where do science and faith go hand in hand? Where do they conflict? If you are not a believer in miracles, how do you reconcile your ideas to events that cannot be scientifically explained? If you are a believer in miracles, do they have to be deserved? Can a person's actions make them worthy or unworthy of a miracle?

The book proceeds on two levels. One is Cameron's personal story with flashbacks and a big secret; he has to reconcile and understand his own recovery and his own conflicted beliefs. The other, of course, is a social commentary of the viral nature of Cameron's story. A physician wants to find the cause of the recovery. A reality TV producer wants to cash in on a feel good story. The convenience store owner sees the "miracle" outside his store as a way to solve his financial problems. The hurt and the ill, needing and wanting to believe in miracles, flock to Cameron. Social media provides a forum for people around the world to proclaim or condemn the miracle. Even the Vatican finds itself involved in trying to document and prove a miracle.

The journalistic approach means that the book delves into each facet as a news story might. Part of the issue with the journalistic style of writing is that the book provides a journalistic back story to everything. There are a lot of details - about each character and about each situation - in the book. Not all of them are relevant to the plot; they support the journalism like approach. Unfortunately, this also means that the story gets bogged down in these details. This book is a slow read but does leave me with a lot to think about.


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Monday, July 16, 2018

Feast Days

Title:  Feast Days
Author:  Ian MacKenzie
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0316440167 / 978-0316440165

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "My husband worked for a bank in São Paula, a city that reminded you of what American used to think the future would look like - gleaming and decrepit at once."

Favorite Quote:  "Luck - the part of your life you don't control. Or:  you make your own luck. I can see both sides of that one."

Feast Days to me reads as a book trying to be philosophical, literary, poetic, etc. It is trying too hard, and the story seems to get lost in the trying. For this reason, even as a rather short book, it seems to last a long time.

Emma is a young wife who follows her husband as his career takes him to São Paulo, Brazil. The book, however, is not as much about Brazil as Emma and her life. It presents as a series of vignettes - sometimes just isolated thoughts - of different points in Emma's life. Sadly, she does not think much of her own life, and she does not think much of herself. In a book, that can sometimes set up a sympathetic character because as a reader, you seem something deeper in the character that you root for; unfortunately, in this case, Emma's ambivalence comes through and becomes my reaction to the character. In the story, I cannot find the depth of character that might lead me to cheer for Emma and that might convince me that she is incorrect in her analysis of herself. I don't see enough to have the need for the story to convince Emma to see the value in herself.

Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener introduced me to to the term "trailing-spouse syndrome". Apparently, this phrase is the name given to the experience of a spouse who follows his/her partner to another city or another country because of a job. It is typically used in the context of an individual working in an expatriate assignment. While Annie, the main character in Strangers in Budapest, would not see herself as trailing-spouse but rather a partner, the term fits Emma to a T. Emma's husband does not share his work with her, and their marriage appears more of a coming to terms than a partnership. Emma does not seems to have many prospects of her own although that is not a result of the relocation of São Paulo but seems to be Emma's definition of herself.

The ending, when it finally comes, attempts a point by being purposefully vague and trying to give an air of mystery. Unfortunately, it is an anticlimactic ending to a book in which nothing much really happens.

The title Feast Days to me implied images of the vibrant and colorful culture of Brazil. I hoped that at some point, Emma's presence in São Paolo would present an immersive experience in the sights and sounds on the city. Unfortunately, her experiences - to use a word from the book description itself - are "listless" and never really get beyond that. So, the cultural experience for me goes missing in this book because the book gives a vision through a character not really engaged in the culture in which she finds herself. One of my favorite things about fiction set in varied locations is the inspiration it provides for me to research the actual place; sadly, I find no such inspiration in this book. With that, I become unfortunately and completely not the reader for this book.


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Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Flight Attendant

Title:  The Flight Attendant
Author:  Chris Bohjalian
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0385542410 / 978-0385542418

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She was aware first of the scent of the hotel shampoo, a  Middle Easter aroma reminiscent of anise, and then - when she opened her eyes - the way the light from the windows was different from the light in the rooms in the hotel where the crew usually stayed."

Favorite Quote:  "A smart girl is nobody's pushover and nobody's foe. A smart girl is both sword and smile."

Cassandra "Cassie" Bowden is a flight attendant. She is an orphan with a traumatic childhood. She is a party girl. She is promiscuous in her dealings with the men she meets. She is an alcoholic, drinking to the the point of black outs. She is a thief. However, is she a murderer? She doesn't think so, but she is not sure.

A flight from New York to Dubai brings Cassie in contact with Alex Sokolov. A seemingly casual hook-up leads to upending Cassie's life. She wakes up the next morning in Alex's bed in his hotel room. Next to her is Alex, dead with his throat slashed end to end. Cassie remembers her night with Alex up to a point; she has no idea how he ends up dead and how she is alive and still in the room.

So begins this page turner by Chris Bohjalian. I am a fan of Chris Bohjalian's books. I look forward to a new one for a couple of reasons. One because each book that I have read takes on a completely different topic meticulously researched. The ones I have read in recent years dealt with sex trafficking, nuclear disaster, World War II, Armenian genocideherbalists, and parasomnia. The author's note to this book addresses Mr. Bohjalian's knack for taking on unique topics. "I rarely write what I know. But I always do my homework, and I have come to love the research that goes into my books - partly because of what I learn, and also because of the new friends I make." I look forward to what he decides to take on next.

My second reason for picking up his books are that they are page turners. Usually tasks go undone and sleep gets forsaken as the books draw me and keep me avidly reading page by page until the very end.  I have liked the books to varying degrees but always appreciated the thoughtfulness with which the topic is handled. This one is no different.

The flight attendant's plot line reads like an espionage thriller. However, the book is unlike others in the genre because it is character driven more so than plot driven. The reason behind the execution and the players involved are there to provide sufficient background, but this book is very much the story of two women - Cassie and Elena. One is an alcoholic on a path of self destruction; the other is a trained assassin with principles. Not the most original or thouht provoking of setups but nevertheless entertaining.  It's more like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train in that regard.

Neither woman makes likable choices, but both are sympathetic characters. The book presents glimpses of the their childhoods, very different in circumstances but very similar in the indelible, traumatic scars that forever change the lives of these two women. It is this character development that keeps me reading. The question for me is not why Alex Sokolov is killed but rather what is to become of these two women.

The ending, when it comes, answers exactly that question. Mind you, the ending is somewhat anticlimactic. The epilogue pushes the boundaries of believability, most markedly skipping over the challenges of dealing with alcoholism. However, until that point, the book is a page turner and an entertaining read. It's not my favorite of his books, but I will continue to look for what Mr. Bohjalian writes next.


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Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Language of Kindness

Title:  The Language of Kindness:  A Nurse's Story
Author:  Christie Watson
Publication Information:  Tim Duggan Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  152476163X / 978-1524761639

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I didn't always want to be a nurse."

Favorite Quote:  "We will meet people on the way:  patients, relatives and staff - people you may recognize already. Because we are all nursed at some point in our lives. We are all nurses."

Let's start with a given. The expertise, knowledge, and skills of nurses are essential to the medical profession. The kindness and gentleness of nurses are an added boon to patients, making a challenging time easier. In my fortunately limited experience as a patient, I have memories of both the caring and on a rare occasion the lack of caring exhibited by nurses. Those interactions remain in my memories long after the medical treatment is over, and the quality of the nursing care makes a huge impact on my memory of the situations.

That is the reason I choose to read this book. Ms. Watson is a retired nurse and an author. In this memoir, she seeks to tell her own journey as a nurse. "It is impossible to describe exactly what I learn, though I know it lies somewhere between science and art. It is all about the smallest details and understanding how they make the biggest difference."

I expect to go on that journey with her and to be moved by the experiences she shares.  I am, to an extent. Two things get in the way of my completely sharing in her journey. Both have to do not with her story itself but rather with how its told. First is the language. Second is the structure of the book.

This book seems written for a particular audience. Perhaps other nurses, but definitely individuals well versed in medical terminology. The book uses a lot of terms and expressions that seem particular to the medical industry. NPS, Obs, Tempa-Dot, A&E and other such terminology abounds through the book. These are not terms I recognize or even terms and acronyms I can easily look up for they mean different things in different environments. For example, in my day job, "A&E" stands for "administrative and executive." It clearly does not mean the same thing here. The profession specific language, aka jargon, gets in the way of understanding in a reader such as myself who is not in the industry.

The structure of the book also seems to indicate its targeted audience. The book is not a sequential, chronological story of her life. It seems more organized by topics and type of experience. The timing of events is not clear even in the specifics; the book seems to jump around pulling incidents from different points in her career. That works if the intent is to present ideas and notes on different facets of nursing. Going in, I expect more a life story with her journey and growth through nursing. That picture fades into the background. From beginning to end, I know that Ms. Watson was a nurse, but I don't follow the arc of her career and the changes in her approach as she learns the "language of kindness." That is the story I am hoping for.

I end this review as I begin. I don't know that I understand her journey as a result of reading this book, but I have an enormous respect for the dedication of nurses who make our difficult times easier.


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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Bella Figura

Title:  Bella Figura:  How to Live, Love, and Eat the Italian Way
Author:  Kamin Mohammadi
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0385354010 / 978-0385354011

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She walks down the street with a swing in her step and a lift to her head."

Favorite Quote:  "Contentment is probably consumerism's biggest enemy."

Bella Figura is a memoir of a woman's recovery from loss and her redefinition of herself  in a trip to Italy. Kamin Mohammdi is a British author who was born in Iran and left the country during the Iranian Revolution. Her previous work celebrates that heritage and her life in her adopted homeland of Britain. Ten years ago, life brought her to Florence Italy. She now lives and works in the Tuscany region on Italy.

Her work has been appeared in a wide range of publications from the Financial Times to Condé Nast Traveller to Men's Health to the Sunday Times of India. Beyond writing, her work includes running a Tuscan olive grove, producing small batch olive oil, creating and selling olive oil based skin care, teaching yoga, practicing Reiki healing and massage therapy, and hosting workshops and tours based around this book. In other words, she has a fascinating and varied background, one I want to read about.

This book focuses on a period of time when personal heartbreak leads her to Florence, Italy to heal. Mind you, she has the financial resources to do so and a friend with a home to lend her. Through the book, she defines what the idea of bella figura means:

  • "The concept of bella figura is about making every aspect of life as beautiful as it can be, whether in Rome, London, New York, or Vancouver."
  • "But it's more about taking care, of speaking beautiful words, being beautiful to yourself, even in private."
  • "Waiting for a party or a man to make you take care of yourself is bullshit. Make la bella figura and make it for yourself. Is not hard."

The advice is sound. Make life beautiful. Make it beautiful for yourself wherever you are. It is an idea that begins on the inside. You carry it with you. I wholeheartedly agree.

So, an author whose experiences I want to read about and a premise I agree with should set up for a moving reading experience. I expect an intersection between memoir, travelogue, and self-help. It is that to an extent with the added bonus of recipes with each chapter although the recipes are not really an integral part of the book. Near the end is also a "how to" on bella figura; again, that too seems simply added on and not necessary to the story actually told in the book. Beyond that unfortunately, for me, the majority of content of the book goes in an entirely different direction.

The bulk of the book seems to be about her dating adventures in Italy and the differences in the dating culture in Italy. To make matters worse, one of the relationships described is an unhealthy one, but for a long while, it persists. This focus in a book about personal development and finding your own joy in life seems to lead away from the concept of bella figura. I am still fascinated by the author and will likely look for her other work; this one was just not for me.


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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sociable

Title:  Sociable
Author:  Rebecca Harrington
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0385542828 / 978-0385542821

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Facebook:  An article called '15 images of a sloth that will just make you laugh.'"

Favorite Quote:  "It is especially important for women to write about themselves because women's narratives have been silenced over the years, just as their labors have been ignored and their feelings shunted aside. Women weren't allowed to tell stories. So I am proud to be of a generation that gives voice to women and helps to mentor and highlight different women writes as they come along."

Elinor Thomlinson is a twenty something, a few years out of college and armed with a journalism degree. She lives with her boyfriend in a basement apartment with a mattress pad for a bed and not much else besides. Instead of the literary journalism job she envisioned, Elinor is barely making ends meet, working as a nanny.

Then, jobs happen for both Elinor and her boyfriend. he is hired to write political articles and commentary for a "real" website. She is tasked with producing content - short and catch - that will go viral for Journalism.ly, a media project of a celebrity. Think BuzzFeed and top ten lists.

Perhaps, I am not the right audience for this book. I do not see the humor in it. I find myself more inclined to tell Elinor to stop whining, grow up, and be an adult. I suppose the fact that the character elicits a reaction - positive or negative - is a positive indicator for the book. However, this depiction of Elinor does not really change from beginning to end. No growth or emotional maturity leaves Elinor as a shallow character who is more annoying than endearing.

The book casts a wide net in Elinor's life - a lot of story lines that could have developed into more. First and foremost, this book centers on Elinor's breakup with her boyfriend and her inability to get over it. That seems to fuel her competitive approach to her job, her interactions with other, her social life, and pretty much everything else. Unfortunately, if the objective of the book is a satirical look at the millennial generation, this story line does not feed into that. The story of a bad breakup exists in every generation.

In her job, two men competing professionally with each other seek to "mentor" Elinor. Essentially, they don't care about the relationship but rather outdoing each other to please their boss. Elinor allows herself to be caught in the middle. She is shown as lacking the confidence to stand her ground and take charge of her own career. Is there a sexist message here as well? I am not sure, but it does seem like they want to pat her on the head and want her to follow along. Again, the story line just highlights Elinor's immaturity and not in a humorous way. There is a moment or two (as in the quote above) that I think more may be coming, but it does not.

Elinor's friendships, the one with her "best" friend in particular, seem to lack sincerity and emotion. Strong, meaningful friendships exists between women of all ages and generations; these friends build each other up and sustain each other through all that life brings. Most of all, they tell each the truth, whether or not the other wants to hear it. That is the heart of a true friendship. It seems sorely lacking between Elinor and her friends.

Satires can be biting and funny. For me, unfortunately, this book becomes about unlikable characters with situations that are just irritating. Perhaps, I am removed from the millennial generation, but I sincerely hope this book is not indicative of their behavior. One thing is clear; unfortunately, I am not the reader for this book.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Balcony

Title:  The Balcony
Author:  Jane Delury
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0316554677 / 978-0316554671

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In June of 1992, I left Boston for France with everything in front of me."

Favorite Quote:  "Yet, I'm sure you know about the meanings one makes when first in love. Coincidences becomes destiny."

The Balcony belongs to the manor house of an estate in a small village outside of Paris, France. In its centuries of existence, the balcony and the house sees numerous families who call the estate a home. Some occupy the manor house itself, and some live in the nearby servants' cottage. The house bears witness to all their lives and to the history that touches these lives through the years.

This book is somewhere between a collection of stories and a novel. I feel that there are connections that exist between the characters and the stories. In fact, I know there are. The descriptions points to "cross-generation connections and troubled legacies." However, I cannot quite capture those relationships, but it is frustrating to expect to be able to. For that, the book contains too many stories and too many characters. After a while, I stop trying, but the feeling of having missed something remains.

Another factor that makes the connections challenging is that the book is not linear. It is not chronological but rather wanders back and forth through history. The book promises a look "over the course of several generations, from the Belle Époque to the present day." The book may be that, but unfortunately not in a way that allows that course of history to be followed. I almost wanted to rearrange the book and the read the book chronologically to see if more of the themes emerged. Realistically, I never vested enough in the book to actually do that.

The book anchors the stories to not a time but a place. The stories all "haunt the same spaces, so that the rose garden, the forest point, and the balcony off the manor's third floor bedroom" are the focal points of the book. Oddly, for a book so centered on a physical space, I walk away without a real sense of what this estate looks like. Through the words, I cannot conjure up an image. The focal point of the estate is at odds with the completely character focus of the stories.

The character focus of the stories is also implied in the synopsis which promises "a fascinating cast of characters ... rich and poor, young and old, powerful and persecuted." Unfortunately, for me, the characters do not become one very important thing. They are not memorable. Not one stands outs. The description promises a narrative that weaves "a gorgeous tapestry of relationships" and "that burrows deep into individual lives." Again, perhaps, it is the lack of chronology, but for me, the tapestry and the depth do not emerge. I am, however, left with an image of darkness and sadness surrounding the house.

The point of description that does hold true is that of "fleeting moments across the frame of the twentieth centuries." I like the premise of history through a home, but I hoped it would convey that feeling of history. Unfortunately, fleeting moments do not allows for connections to form and ultimately, for me, result in an unsatisfying reading experience and leave me knowing that there was something I missed.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Laura & Emma

Title:  Laura & Emma
Author:  Kate Greathead
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501156608 / 978-1501156601

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Laura sometimes woke up in the night, rattled by thoughts she'd never have during the day."

Favorite Quote:  "Buck up. Fake it till you feel it. The show must go on. This was the way they did things - These people in the world she'd grown up in."

Laura and Emma is a book about life centered around Laura who lives in New York City. When Laura is in her thirties, an accidental pregnancy leads to the birth of Emma and to Laura's adventures in parenting. This book follows Laura from the point of her pregnancy until Emma's high school years.

The story is really Laura's story, reaching beyond her life as a single parent to Emma. It reaches into her relationship with her parents, her brother, and her friends. It reaches into a professional life and into her forays towards a social life. Emma is present in the story as a part of Laura's life rather than a freestanding character whose life the reader follows.

The book is somewhat chronological, but is really a series of sequential snapshots. The reader has to connect the dots to see the progression. I keep expecting an epiphany or a moment of reflection or growth to emerge to tie the story together. However, it never does. The snapshots of Laura's life remain that - a series of sometimes amusing and sometimes annoying mundane events in the life of a wealthy, thirty-something year old woman.

Throughout, there are hints at subplots that could develop into stories with greater depth. The book touches on many different many. The decision surrounding an unplanned pregnancy. Postpartum depression. The struggles and joys of single parenthood. The mother-daughter relationship both between Laura and her mother Bibs and Laura and her daughter Emma. The competitive world of New York private schools. The AIDS epidemic. The role of the hired help. The ending, I think, tries to reach a philosophical point. I am not entirely sure what it is. Unfortunately, the book just touches on these things and then flits away to another.

The hardest part of this book is that I find myself completely unable to relate to Laura in so many ways. I want to relate to her challenges in parenting and her anecdotes of life in New York. However, Laura's lifestyle puts her completely in a different world for Laura's world is the world of the rich - of old money.

Her apartment may not be what she considers the right neighborhood, but it is a penthouse. She has her job because her family is part of the Board of Trustees. When Emma is born, the job conveniently becomes part-time with the hours matching Emma's preschool hours. Oh, and at her full salary and with eight weeks of paid vacation time in the summer. That summer vacation is spent in the family "cottage" on the shore. Emma goes to the same prestigious private school that Laura attended as a child; Laura is disappointed that it is not the more progressive private school that she wanted for Emma. Laura and her brother's sibling arguments are over how much of their expenses their parents pay for - her apartment, his country club membership, her daughter's private school tuition, and so on. Laura considers taking the subway and doing her own grocery shopping major accomplishments. After a while, it is difficult to concentrate on the issues faced by the characters because they have absolutely no concept of the issues faced by the majority of the readers of this book.

All in all, the book leaves me slightly amused if only at the "cluelessness" of the main character. Even more so, it unfortunately leaves me wondering what the point was.


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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Kicks

Title:  Kicks:  The Great American Story of Sneakers
Author:  Nicholas Smith
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0451498119 / 978-0451498113

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It's gotta be the shoes."

Favorite Quote:  "For everything sneaker brands have done to get us to notice, choose, and stay loyal to them, our relationship to sneakers is still defined, ultimately, by what we do with them once we buy them. Sneakers might be worn every day or only for special occasions. They might be for sport or for style. They might be kept pristine in a box to be resold. They might be burned in a garbage can for social media to see. They might be loved or barely thought about. Even an identical show can have innumerable meanings depending on the wearer."

I know the brand names. I know the names of the athletes who market the brands. I know the quality of the shoes. I know my preferences. What I did not know was the history and the business that turned these household names into ... well ... into household names. Adidas. Converse. Nike. New Balance. Puma. Reebok. Vans. And others. Note that I list the brands in alphabetical order. No endorsement here. The choice of a shoe is a very personal although it is fascinating to read about the work that goes into influencing that choice.

The introduction to the marketing copy for the book reads, "A cultural history of sneakers, tracing the footprint of one of our most iconic fashions across sports, business, pop culture, and American identity." The "cultural history" defines the objective of the book. The book goes into materials, manufacture, and the science of design. The focus, however, is most definitely on the people and the societal factors that lead and follow the development of sneakers. The tongue in cheek use of "tracing the footprint" for me matches the tone of the book. The book presents a lot of research and a lot of facts. It does so, however, with a base in storytelling and a very easy and very quick to read conversational style. The "American identity" I find interesting because so many of the brands and so much of the history have origins outside of the United States. This book, however, is written perhaps for the American audience so it presents everything through that lens. Even though the brands may not be American, their prevalence in the United States is definitely a statement of culture.

Centering a history around the individuals responsible means there are a lot of names in this book. Many of them repeat and pop up at different points in the book. At first, I try to keep the names and personalities straight, until I realize that what I want to follow is the trajectory of the companies and the brands not necessarily the individuals. That focus is much easier because there are fewer brands than people and because the brand names are so familiar to me.

The book covers a lot of mileage. The impact of the rubber industry on sneakers. The competition between two brothers that gives rise to two major brands. The impact of World War II on the industry. The differences in brand association between different sports. The transition of a shoe into a statement of fashion and identity. The race to identify the next sports hero to then court them as a sponsor. Some of the history is dark - wages, factory conditions, affordability, and even murder. All in all, it is a fascinating look at the wide impact the industry has had and continues to have on American culture.

Who would have thought that someone would write a book about sneakers? Who would have thought I would choose to read it? Who would have thought that I would really like it? If you have an interest in the topic, I would recommend this very niche history book.


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Friday, June 22, 2018

Flying at Night

Title:  Flying at Night
Author:  Rebecca L. Brown
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399585990 / 978-0399585999

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "You would think that a woman names after a plane, the daughter of the briefly famous emergency-landing pilot 'the Sliver Eagle,' would feel at home in the sky."

Favorite Quote:  "Through I was used to adjustments for Fred's quirks, I had been raised to prize politeness above all else, so I always slunk away with my tail between my legs instead of marching out with my middle finger raised in salute to all the assholes who judged my son and me."

The author's note to the book reads, "Flying at Night is an ode to mothers who fight impossible battles for their children every day without blinking, go to sleep and get up and do the same again. We never know the hidden struggles that others are waging unless we bring our own pain and heartache out of the darkness and share it. We share it for one reason:  so others know they are are not alone." It is, however, than that.

It is about the challenges of being the sandwich generation, taking care of both children and aging parents. It is about the complicated, relationship between a daughter and her father - the sense of responsibility and the pent up emotions of things left unsaid and unquestioned. It is about the scars emotional abuse suffered as a child leaves behind. It is about the struggle with depression. It is about the unique parenting challenges of raising a special needs child. It is about the bond between a grandparent and a grandson, a relationship in which you can have all the joys of enjoying the child and none of the responsibility.

Piper is the daughter of a father who was a hero to the public and a distant, controlling man at home. She is also mother to nine year old Fred, who she at first deems idiosyncratic but knows deep down that it is more than that.

The plot of this character driven debut novel is a relatable one. Fred is learning to navigate his world. Piper is learning a whole new language as she loves her child and tries to do the best for him. Lance, Piper's father, has always been distant. That is, until he has a heart attack and suffers brain damage, and his wife leaves him. Out of a sense of responsibility, Piper takes on his care. In doing so, she invites Lance back into her life and into Fred's life. In living together, life and relationships evolve.

The book alternates chapters between the perspectives of these three main characters. The chapter titles are the names, but their voices are so distinct that the jumps are clear. For the two adults, their "voice" also includes reflections of the past, and how the relationship between father and daughter changes through the years.

The author's biography adds a very personal perspective to this book. Ms. Brown is a mother to three boys; her oldest was diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder at age ten. She is mother writing something that is her reality. I don't know if Fred's character is based on her son, but in my mind, that connection to her life gives credibility to both the characters of Piper and Fred.

There are aspects of the story that leave me wondering - Lance's attachment to his dog and the role of Piper's husband Isaac in particular. Both have significance, but both are left open to interpretation.  The book is touching, and the ending is a surprise to me. In hindsight, I can see it, but not in first reading the book. It leaves me thinking at the end.


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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Swimming Between Worlds

Title:  Swimming Between Worlds
Author:  Elaine Neil Orr
Publication Information:  Penguin Group. 2018. 416 pages.

ISBN:  0425282732 / 978-0425282731

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Early mornings on the university compound were quiet as the dawn of the world."

Favorite Quote:  "This seemed, finally, the clear truth of the camera:  that the eye sees what it expects to see ... Unless the eye is corrected, all vision is lost."

The 1960s in the United States were a tumultuous time. It was a time of cultural and political revolution. There were heated debate about equality across gender, sexual orientation, and in particular about race. The South was still deeply embedded in its cultural of segregation. This book sets the story of three young people - Tacker, Kate, and Gaines - in this time in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Tacker is a local high school sports hero. A job takes him to Ibadan, Nigeria. He comes home, seemingly disgraced. His "crime" is breaking the social constructs set up by the company he worked for. He comes home, alone and unsure of his place in his own world. His views have changed, but his world has not.

Kate is a young woman, adrift by the loss of her family. Yet, she is financially independent and able to pursue life as she chooses. Yet, that security may be based on a history that puts into question her right to use that security.

Tacker and Kate are white. Gaines is a young man just like them. He is attempting to work hard for his family and to find his way in the world. Gaines, however, is black. Unfortunately, that alone is enough to put Tacker, Kate, and Gaines worlds apart.

This book through its characters presents the fight for equality that has always and still continues to exist in the United States. There is a lot going on in this book. The story is primarily from Tacker's perspective. It narrates the "present day" story and also presents snapshots of Tacker's time in Nigeria. As such, it shows his growth and the changes in his views when his horizons grows beyond his home town. Kate's perspective is still from that home town; as she gets to know Tacker, she begins to question her own beliefs. This book is about their change in world views.

Gaines and his family and friends are the context of Tacker and Kate's thoughts on the divisions in the South. Tacker and Kate are the ones trying to bridge the paradigms they were raised with against their own thoughts about what is right. These are the worlds they "swim between." However, I don't feel that Gaines' perspective is portrayed as well;  his interactions with Tacker and Kate depict the changes the two undergo. Perhaps, depicting Gaines' perspective is not the objective, but it does make him seem like a lesser character in the book. In a book about equality, that is unfortunate.

This is the first book I have read by Elaine Neil Orr, and her background explains both the topic and the settings. Ms. Orr's parents were medical missionary; she was born and raised in Nigeria on one of their mission. She came the United States at age sixteen. She studied and now lives in the South. She is a Southern writer with an African background taking on the history of racism in the South.  Regardless, a book that confronts the history of racism in the United States and propels the conversation forward as it continues even today is an important one to read.


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Monday, June 18, 2018

Women in Sunlight

Title:  Women in Sunlight
Author:  Frances Mayes
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 448 pages.
ISBN:  045149766X / 978-0451497666

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "By chance, I witnessed the arrival of the three American women."

Favorite Quote:  "A house in Tuscany where they know no one. Everything open to reinterpretation."

The women in sunlight are at a certain age and at a certain stage of life. Are the junctures in their lives endings or new beginnings? The women are Julia, Camille, and Susan, all in their sixties. They meet by chance near their homes in the United States. They find a bond and shared experiences. They all find themselves at a crossroads.

A bold plan and the financial ability to make it happen leads them to a beautiful home in Tuscany. There, they meet Kit. Kit is a fellow American living in San Rocco, Tuscany working on her book. For the four, this becomes a journey in friendship, reflection, self-discovery, and new beginnings.

In some ways, this book is very similar to Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun. Find the perfect house. (Big caveats: Would you have the ability to afford it as these women do?) Pack up and come to Italy. Enjoy something about the house or make a discovery. Settle in as if you have always been there. Explore and reflect.

Unlike Under the Tuscan Sun, this book then is not about the renovation of the house, but rather about the new adventures these women encounter in Italy. Under The Tuscan Sun, however, does a much better job of painting a picture of an idyllic Tuscan location; this book does not leave the same imagery. The tone of the book, however, is very similar. Make a new discovery. Find some interesting character. Reflect and make decisions on the past and the future. Repeat many times from the start to the finish of the book. This is the feel good story of the book.  However, it is a little too idyllic for my taste. Everything seems to come or resolve itself too easily.

Added to this story is Kit's story or rather, I should say, Margaret's story. Kit has been living in Italy for ten to fifteen years. She is writing a book on her mentor Margaret. The story of the mentor becomes a part of this book. These reflections are by far my least favorite part of the book. Margaret is not a character in the book but, at the same time, seems to take up a lot of the story. I am still not entirely sure why. What does Margaret have to do with this story?

As with Under the Tuscan Sun, I want to like this book better than I do. The ideas of reinvention at any age and the strength of friendships between women all appeal to me. The idea that these women display the gumption to move so far away from what they know is appealing. Of course, the move and the sojourn in Tuscany is idealized, but the idea still intrigues.

Unfortunately, the story itself seems to drag. There are the back stories of these women. There is Margaret's story. There are the four families. At times, it is just confusing as to which of the women is involved with which story line. It just never quite comes together, and the character never quite develop enough. Sadly, I don't invest in the story beyond the initial draw of the idea.


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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Coincidence Makers

Title:  The Coincidence Makers
Author:  Yoav Blum
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1250146119 / 978-1250146113

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Look at the line of time."

Favorite Quote:  "'At the far left ... are all of the people who really think that everything is completely coincidental ... And on the other end are all of the people who are sure that there's a reason for everything ... The people standing at the two extremes are the happiest people in the world. At both ends. Do you know why? because they they don't ask why. Never. Not at all. There's no point, because either they believe there's no answer, or they believe that someone is responsible for the answer and that it's none of their business. But these people aren't even one-thousandth of the population. Most people stand in the range between them. No, they don't stand. They go, they move. They constantly move in one direction and then the other. They think they're on one of the sides, but occasionally, nonetheless, they ask themselves why and don't understand that they'll be happy only if they let go of this question, for whatever reason."

A coincidence maker is a trained individual skilled in nudging events that cause a ripple effect of other effects. Chaos theory uses the classic example the butterfly effect. The bat of a single butterfly wing can be traced to impact the path and occurrence of a tornado weeks later. Given the precise set of circumstances and occurrences, a seemingly insignificant coincidence can potentially change an entire life.

This novel puts forth an unnamed organization that in different way interact with and influence the human world. Imaginary friends exist only as long as someone imagines them. Coincidence makers are recruited, trained, and given mission creating coincidences. The higher the level of the coincidence maker, the more complex the coincidences they create and the more complex the tools they have available to them. The rules are strict, and the consequences of breaking the rules are severe. The department is run by someone named only The General.

Eric, Guy, and Emily meet as one incoming class of coincidence makers. Surrounding them are the subjects of their coincidences. The book focuses primarily on Guy, but flips back and forth between the three and even the targets of their coincidences. The book also is nonlinear in time going from the present into Guy's past. Flashbacks introduce a few more characters. At first, that makes the book a bit challenging to follow. Then,  I realize that the confusion matches the theme of the book. I allow myself as a reader to be nudged back and forth between the threads of the story. I enjoy the process of thinking about what direction is going to go.

The targets of Guy's mission are a businessman and a killer for hire. That implies a thrill ride and action.  However, I realize that the book is more about the characters and the emotions; this is about the coincidence makers not the coincidences. That gives the book almost a philosophical bent and raises questions about free will versus predetermination, choice versus coincidence, and other such questions. The story anchors these questions in characters who become real and a story of love achieved and lost.

"There's always a broader picture. There's always something beyond the system you're concentrating on. Never forget that. There are no clear boundaries. Life doesn't stop at the boundaries of the table. And there are always more than six pockets you can fall into. There is always something beyond. Always, always, always."  This statement in a nutshell is the lesson of this book. For most of this book, I don't see where this book is going. I mean that in the best way possible. At times, the story is a set of distinct threads. I know that they are coming together. I have hypotheses as to how and why, and I am completely wrong. It is not until almost the end that everything does come together. It does so in a way I do not see coming. So, clearly, I concentrated on the wrong thing, and as a result had a great reading experience.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

All the Beautiful Girls

Title:  All the Beautiful Girls
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399181067 / 978-0399181061

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The line of Aunt Tate's jaw was fierce and unyielding, like a hammered steel length of railroad track, but her eyels were soft and puffy from furtive crying."

Favorite Quote:  "You can't let what's happened make you a victim. People will want to see you that way; they'll say, Oh, that poor little girl. She's so pathetic. Let's just let her get away with anything and everything.' But I don't want for you to live your life trading on being a victim. I will not let that happen. You have to face life, head on."

Lily Decker is a survivor. She somehow survives a car crash that leaves her entire family dead. She is put in the care of her aunt and uncle. She survives years of her uncle's abuse and her aunt's unwillingness to see it. The "Aviator" is both the cause of and her savior from this heartache. He is the driver responsible for the accident that kills Lily's family. He is also a magnanimous presence in her childhood, providing books and dance lessons and material things. Yes, he has an actual name, but Lily rather annoyingly refers to him as the "Aviator" throughout the book

Dance become Lily's outlet and leads to her transformation from Lily to Ruby Wilde. She leaves her small town for a life of glamour and dancing as a Las Vegas show girls. Over the years, through ups and downs, Lily survives and even thrives. She finds a community of her own.

The shadow of abuse and the scars it leaves, however, are never far. These wounds consciously and unconsciously drive Lily's decisions. Through it all, the Aviator remains a presence in her life. In many ways, he is the only family she has, and he is more her family than her aunt and uncle ever were.

The base of this book is the sexual abuse of a child is a brutal and heartbreaking one. It sets up Lily as a truly sympathetic character. The image of this little girl who loses her family and then is forced into the trauma of horrific abuse lingers through out the book. Through her positive and self-destructive choices, I want things to work out for Lily.

This book is in turn joyful for Lily saves Lily. She is responsible for finding her way out not only from her abusive home but through other struggles in life. She has help along the way - the Aviator, teachers, kind bosses in Las Vegas, and the friends she finds in Las Vegas. Yet most of all, the story is of Lily finding her strength and her voice.

So, a heart wrenching premise and a strong character should make for a moving, emotional read. This book is that to an extent. It stops short. It takes me a while to puzzle out why. The book leaves a big open question about the accident that is at the foundation of the book. Lily is eight at the time. Yet, she never once displays anger towards the Aviator who is responsible. He becomes almost a mythical heroic figure in her mind. A way of coping with grief? A way of escaping the abuse at home? A child's fantasy? This question is never explored.

Although it sounds contradictory, but this book about abuse is too perfect and too neat. The "good" characters are all good. The "bad" characters seems to have few or no redeeming qualities. The life of a Las Vegas show girl is for the most part presented as a sanitized sisterhood of entertainers. Lily's transition out of serious situations seems to be relatively quick and seamless. Even the ending seems to wrap everything up with a neat bow. People, as we know, are not one dimensional. Life, as we know, is not that simple.

This is about the reaction I had to to Elizabeth Church's The Atomic Weight of Love. I enjoyed parts. I sympathized with the main character. Yet at the end, I am looking for something more.


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