Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Mermaid

Title:  The Mermaid
Author:  Christina Henry
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399584048 / 978-0399584046

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

Opening Sentence:  "Once there was a fisherman, a lonely man who lived on a cold and rocky coast and was never able to convince any woman to come away and live in that forbidding place with him."

Favorite Quote:  "I don't belong to you ... You thought if I married you that I would, but I don't. I don't belong to any man ... I only belong to myself. But belonging to myself doesn't mean I don't love you or that I don't want to stand beside you."

The book is interesting in its use of historic characters and stories. This books centers on PT Barnum and the Feejee (Fiji) mermaid exhibit in his museum in New York. The exhibit was the torso and head of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fin. The hoax sold was that this was a mermaid captured around the Fiji Islands in South Pacific. The controversial exhibit was supposedly lost in one of the many fires at the museum.

The author's note to this book acknowledges the story and its inspiration for this book. However, the author clearly states that both the legend of the Fiji mermaid and the character of PT Barnum has been fictionalized and depicted in a way that suits the story the author is trying to tell. It has no relevance to the actual historical rendition.

This book imagines what if the mermaid was real? Amelia is a mermaid, an actual mermaid. A love brings her to a small fishing community. Loss and a new beginning brings her to the world.

The first part of this book reads like a magical fairy tale. A fisherman captures a mermaid but lets her go. The mermaid responds to the loneliness of the fisherman and returns. She takes a human form, and the two for an idyllic bubble with the small community in which the fisherman lives. Even the community comes to accept the mermaid and guard her secret.

Then, things change. With a goal to be adventurous and embrace life, Amelia leaves her quiet home for the hustle and bustle of New York City and beyond. She becomes part of the curiosities exhibited by PT Barnum. This decisions brings Amelia travels and new relationships. It also brings fear and ridicule in a way she could not have imagined. Throughout it brings a conflict between PT Barnum's focus on business and money and Amelia's attempt to protect her own interest. She is pretty savvy for a mermaid who has led a very secluded life.

In this way, the remainder of the book changes from the magical fairy tale into a conversation about human beliefs and actions in the names of those beliefs. "Belief was more dangerous than all the tale-telling in all the pubs of the world. Humans, Amelia knew, would do anything for belief. They would proselytize from the highest mountain for belief. They would collect like-minded people and form mobs for belief. They would kill one another for belief."

In doing so, the book unfortunately loses its magic and brings the reader back to the very human world of money, business deals, religious diatribes, and sadly even violence. The latter part of the book also introduces a new love story which I find to not really developed and not necessary. I have greater appreciation for Amelia finding her own way in the world.

I enjoy the character of Amelia and her perspective of the world. I also enjoy the other female characters in the book. The book touches on the independence in women but just barely. "Women who did what they liked instead of what other people wished were often accused of witchcraft, because only a witch could be so defiant, or so it was thought."

So, an interesting premise, a magical beginning, and a story that for me does not find its way back to that magic.

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

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Place for Us

Title:  A Place for Us
Author:  Fatima Farheen Mirza
Publication Information:  SJP for Hogarth. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1524763551 / 978-1524763558

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

Opening Sentence:  "As Amar watched the hall fill with guests arriving for his sister's wedding, he promised himself he would stay."

Favorite Quote:  "But what I have never told any of you, never even explored within myself, is that it has been a habit, my faith, a way of living I never questioned, and once you three were born it was for you all that I adhered to it as I did. I wanted you three to grow with an awareness of God, and with that order and compass and comfort it provides, safe from dangers I could not imagine and I could not protect you from."

A Place for Us is the story of a family and the struggle between generations as children make choices that seem foreign to the parents. This book is unique for two reason - its publication and the cultural context in which it sets the story.

This book is the first novel for the SJP for Hogarth imprint, a joint endeavor between actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Molly Stern, Publisher of Crown and Hogarth. The goal is for the imprint to publish books that Ms. Parker acquires and that reflect her reading tastes. She also is the guiding vision for the editorial process. This book is also the debut novel for the author.

The cultural context of the book is its other unique feature. The family at the heart of the story is an Indian American Muslim immigrant family. The book is about the process of assimilation that immigrant families go through down the generations. Rafiq and Layla are from India. For their children, India is the land of their parents. They straddle both cultures much more so than their parents are able to. This cultural conversation adds to the already existing divide between generations in any given culture.

The plot of this book centers on the wedding Haadia, one of Rafiq and Layla's children. The wedding and Haadia's request brings home her brother, Amar who has long been estranged from the family. In between is Huda, the almost invisible middle child. The history of this family collectively and each family member's secrets come to light as the book weaves memories and flashbacks through different time period over the the course of the wedding.

The story of the book is not unusual - in life or in books. Parents have expectations and plans. Children have dreams and desires. The two often don't match. They result in conflict even though love may exist on all sides. Where conversation and respect exist, the family members find a way. Otherwise, estrangement occurs, and words are said that cannot be taken back.

What I find challenging about the book is the timeline. The book bounces back and forth to different periods of time in the family's life sometimes with no warning. It takes a while to straighten out what occurs when in a more linear fashion. It makes the book difficult to follow at times.

What I appreciate most about this book is that it writes about an Indian American Muslim family not as a statement on the American diaspora, not as a depiction of the immigrant experience, not as an overt statement of diversity but just as a family like thousands of others that are part of the fabric of America. This nation is a melting pot with diverse traditions reflecting the diverse backgrounds of our immigrants. Yet, at the end of the day, parents, children, and families face so many of the same challenges and struggles no matter what the cultural background. It seems obvious when stated, but so often, as readers and as people, we look for the differences rather than the commonalities. So, kudos to SJP for Hogarth and Ms. Mirza for presenting a family as a family not as a political statement. That is the beauty of my America. There is indeed a place for all of us.

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Long Players

Title:  Long Players:  A Love Story in Eighteen Songs
Author:  Peter Coviello
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2018. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0143132334 / 978-0143132332

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 must have been in the eighth or ninth song."

Favorite Quote:  "Songs are not guidebooks, any more than novels. They do not offer instruction in how to live a life - unless your life impressively more dramatic than my own. but they are for many of us where we encounter possibilities, inferences, angles of blossoming though, that for whatever reason come to be accessible to us in no other human way."

The subtitle of this book states that it is "a love story in eighteen songs." With that and the cassette tape on the cover, I expect the book to be about music or at least feature a lot of music. Combine that with the fact that this book is about a man writing about being blindsided by a divorce and his resulting alienation from all he thought was his life, including  his two stepdaughters. I now expect an emotional book about grief and recovery and the ability to music and songs to say what we are unable to sometimes find the words to say.

That I relate to. I am a listener - not maker - of music. I haven't had mix tapes in a long time, but I capture the same thought now through playlists. One to match every mood. I have songs that I return to time and again because they are the soundtrack of my life. This book so sounds like it is for me.

Unfortunately, in reading it, I find that I am not the reader for this book. The vision I had upon reading the description is not the vision I end with. This occurs for three reasons.

First, the book is based on grief and the devastation of an unexpected end to a relationship. Other books and other authors have written about grief arising from different sources. Typically, the book is the author's journey through grief leading to a growth, a change, and possibly a new beginning. In this book, sadly I do not see the evolution. It begins and end with that grief. Unfortunately, almost 300 pages of that after a while just sounds repetitive and self-pitying. I don't mean to undermine his experience or the extent of his sadness; I just don't need to read about it again and again. I want there to be an answer or a change or life beyond the sadness, but unfortunately, that never comes.

Second, for me, the writing style of the book is a challenge. The author is a professor of English and has the word range to prove it. I am all for literary style and an extensive vocabulary, but then again, I I do not need the reminder that the author is an English professor. Most times, for me, strong emotions - as his are - simply conveyed are powerful; they don't need the embellishment of vocabulary.

Third, despite its title and the cover art, the book seems only tangentially about music and its power to heal. Music here more triggers memories, but that is different from the restorative power of music. Perhaps, the music gets lost in the journal like, self-pitying tone of the book. Perhaps, it's just not there. Either way, having read it, I cannot recall any of the more than eighteen songs nor was I inspired to find and listen to the tracks.

I wish the author well in dealing with his grief. I hope that music does help as it does for so many.

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

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Recipe Box

Title:  The Recipe Box
Author:  Viola Shipman
Publication Information:  Thomas Dunne Books. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1250146771 / 978-1250146779

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

Opening Sentence:  "Alice washed her hands in the kitchen sink, looked out the window, and smiled."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is divided into shadow and light ... You can see it either way, based on your own perspective ... Based on your own light level."

Sometimes, I just need a feel good book that reminds me of the priorities in life and the bonds of family. This is one of those books. Since I love to cook, an added bonus is the fact that it is also a foodie book centered around a recipe box passed down from generation to generation.

The plot of the book is a simple and predictable one. Samantha "Sam" Mullin grows up in a strong and loving family with multiple generations on her family farm in northern Michigan. As is often the case, her struggle is the pull of family tradition and a need to define herself separately and distinctly from that heritage. So, she leaves the family business to seek education and a career as a chef . Circumstances come together to bring her home again. Part of Sam's story, as you might expect, is a love story - sweet and predictable.

Surrounding Sam's story is the story of the recipe box and the generations of strong women who have both contributed to and worked with the recipes in the box. The book weaves in their stories and their choices through vignettes and flashbacks. These women's are both Sam's anchors and the ones who give her courage to find her own path. As the author's note states, "The book is a tribute to our elders, especially the women in our lives whose voices were often overlooked in their lifetimes."

Anchoring each section of the book is a recipe from the recipe box with smells and flavors that rise up from the page. The recipes include apple crisp, peach-blueberry slab pie, cider donuts, cherry chip cake, triple berry galette, thumbprint cookies, ice cream sandwiches with maple spice chocolate chip cherry chunk cookies, the perfect pie crust, strawberry shortcakes, rhubarb sour cream coffee cake, apple and cherry turnovers, and pumpkin bars wit cream cheese frosting. All are made with farm fresh ingredients of course. The recipes do not tie exactly to what may be found on a farm in Michigan at that time of year, but that does not really matter. The recipes sound delicious!

Now, the practical stuff. The story is predictable. The life advice is full of cliche reminders. Certain themes - family, history, choices, regrets, joy, relationships - repeat again and again throughout the book:

  • "Life's an adventure ... You have to keep your eyes open or you'll miss it."
  • "Love isn't a game in which you give up control. It's a partnership."
  • "Only you can decide what makes you happy."
  • "There's always beauty to be found."
  • "I need to be grateful for the simplest of things."
  • "But don't live with regret, sweetheart."
  • "We are who we are based on the history and sacrifices of all those who came before us."

Regardless, the book works because sometimes we all need those reminders. At least I do.

Also, the images of the Michigan countryside are serene. The idea of history and continuity passed through generations of strong women is an appealing one. Recipes and gatherings of family and friends conjure up cozy images of a warm hearth. Mind you, there are hints of seriousness with harvests lost, crops destroyed, and even the challenges faced by migrant workers. However, the heart of the story is a sweet, simple, feel good tale perfect for a summer beach read (or really a cozy fall read with cup of cider and a baked goodie in hand!).

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