Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Alternate Side

Title:  Alternate Side
Author:  Anna Quindlen
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0812996062 / 978-0812996067

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

Opening Sentence:  "'Just look at that,' Charlie Nolan said, his arm extended like that of a maĆ®tre d' indicating a particularly good table."

Favorite Quote:  "When people divorced, she was often surprised, and when they stayed together, sometimes more so. She thought that people sought marriage because it meant they could put aside the mascara, the bravado, the good clothes, the company manners, and be themselves, whatever that was, not try so hard. But what that seemed to mean was that they didn't try at all. In the beginning they all spend so much time trying to know the other person, asking questions, telling stories, wanting to burrow beneath the skin. But then you married and naturally were supposed to know one another down to the ground, and so stopped asking, answering, listening."

Alternate Side is a cynical and sad commentary on marriage:

  • "It was notable because they rarely quarreled anymore. Their marriage had become like the AA prayer: 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.'"
  • "When one of you wanted one life, and the other wanted something completely different, there was a technical term for that:  irreconcilable."
  • "The truth was that their marriages were like balloons:  some went suddenly pop, but more often than not the air slowly leaked out until it was a sad, wrinkled little thing with no life to it anymore."
  • "It's actually fairly typical. What's not typical is that while many marriages run out of steam, most of them keep on going. Or at least endure, steamless."

Within a marriage, the book is a commentary on settling in life. "Nora remembered drawing in the sand of her future with a stick. What she couldn't recall was when the sand had become cement, the who-I-want-to-be turned for once and for all into who-I-am." So many of us have asked that question at some point in our lives.

The book tells this story through the marriage and life of Charlie and Nora Nolan. They both have seemingly successful careers. They appear to be happily married. They are ensconced in a clannish, small street of stately homes in New York cities. They are well off. They are parents to two twins now in college. They seem to lead a charmed life. However, unlike the relationship depicted in Miller's Valley by Anna Quindlen, the cracks in this marriage and this lifestyle are visible.

The book is a slow burn. At the beginning, I am not sure where it is going or if I even want to follow along on the journey. It is set in the world of the well-to-do; in fact, those wealthy enough to own a house on a dead end street in a lovely neighborhood in New York City. The squabbles and concerns seems small. It takes a while to realize that this book is more about the city and the characters than a plot.

Then, an incident turns this book into a discussion of prejudice and of economic and social differences. I am intrigued for the book develops into a statement, perhaps about the diversity of the city and perhaps about systemic inequities. Each character seems poised to presents a different perspective - their alternate sides, if you will - on the issue.

Then, the book turns again for it is not the incident itself but rather individual reactions that draw the differences in this book. The incident brings to the forefront differences in approach and thought that have always existed within this household and within this neighborhood. However, this book is not about one defining moment, but rather a collection of differences that come together into a bigger statement. The book comes to its main point about life and about relationships. I go from not being sure I am enjoying the book to crying by the end because the emotion creeps up on me.


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Monday, September 17, 2018

The Brightest Sun

Title:  The Brightest Sun
Author:  Adrienne Benson
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  077833127X / 978-0778331278

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

Opening Sentence:  "One of the old women severed the umbilical cord and passed the tiny body, slippery and warm, up into Leona's arms."

Favorite Quote:  "The forest breathed, and its heart beat; it was a unified body that lived and moved, its cells the countless creatures and plants that made it, and the rocks and the dirt and the air."

Set in the cities and villages of Kenya, The Brightest Sun is about women, specifically about mothers and daughters. It is about three specific women and their relationship to Kenya and life in Kenya.

Leona comes to Kenya as an anthropologist to study the Masaai lifestyle and to find ways to protect it. She finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy and a daughter. It changes her entire life. "But somewhere, somewhere Leona couldn't identify or pinpoint, there was something new. Being a mother was confusing and hard."

Simi is a Masaai woman. She is a mother to many, but is physically unable to bear children. "We say that a woman who hasn't given birth is like a wilderness. A woman or a man with children to remember them can never die. But a person like me? When I am gone, nobody will remember."

Jane is an expatriate wife. Her husband and daughter are her world as she follows her husband around the world from post to post. "It's not perfect, nothing ever is. Kids arent' yours to keep, in the end ... You can't control every outcome ... We had to accept him the way he is ... It was our gift to him to finally acknowledge that. Children become themselves. You can't force an outcome just because you want to."

Surrounding them is the world of Kenya - its natural grandeur, its people, its politics, and its culture. Kenya provides the background.  "It was a Kenyan sun; the kind she loved best - the brightest sun Leona had every seen." The story is the women and their daughters. The women come to life in this beautifully rendered debut novel with its vivid imagery of the Kenyan landscape. I could visualize it to the point of almost feeling like all my other senses were immersed in the environment as well.

In the stories of these women is a discussion of motherhood - reluctant, coveted, and sometimes taken for granted. The other concept rooted in the stories of these women is the feeling of being the outsider and the need to find a place to belong. Leona, as a single white female living with the Masaai and simply living in Kenya, stands apart. Leona, to whom motherhood does not come naturally, is different. Simi, as a woman unable to bear children, is a solitary figure in a society that values fertility. Jane spends her life as an expatriate, by definition an outsider. Even their daughters are outsiders. Adia, born and raised in Kenya, has two women who both mother her and a father who is not aware of her existence; this makes her different than the children around her. Grace is used to constantly having to start over with new friendships.

The emotions - both the joys and the heartbreaks - are universal. This feeling of not fitting in and the need to belong is also a universal one. It is these emotions that make the story of these women such a compelling one.


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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

Title:  Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen
Author:  Sarah Bird
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1250193168 / 978-1250193162

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

Opening Sentence:  "Here's the first thing you need to know about Miss Cathy Williams:  I am the daughter of a daughter of a queen and my mama never let me forget it."

Favorite Quote:  "You'll see what black folk won. War was the easy part, buttercup. Peace with white folks gon be a whole new war. War we be fighting alone."

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen does so many things that I love about historical fiction. It introduces me to a history I did not know. It presents the basis of a history in a readable story. It motivates me to research the actual history for I always remember the wide gap between actual history and historical fiction.

Cathy Williams was born into slavery but always taught that she was the daughter of a daughter of a queen. She was taught that she was a captive and not a slave. Those lessons came from her mother and from stories of her grandmother.

This book begins during the Civil War when Cathy is a young woman. The plantation on which Cathy lived was attacked by Union soldiers following the command of Philip Sheridan. This corps applied General Sheridan's approach of destroying the food supplies, crops, and homes of those they attacked. The logic was that destroying the infrastructure cripples the enemy from recovering and attacking. At the conclusion of the attack, Cathy was mistaken for young man and taken by the unit as an assistant to the regiment cook. The truth is discovered, but Cathy remained with the unit until the conclusion of the war.

The end of the Civil War brought a new conundrum. These former slaves were now free, but they truly had no where to go and no support system to turn to. Cathy Williams made a bold decision. She disguised herself as a man and joined the US Army under the name William Cathay. Even under false pretenses, she was the first African-American woman to enlist in the US Army. She became a member of the Buffalo Soldiers. This nickname was given to the all-Black regiments that were part of the peacetime US Army. The regiments headed west and fought in the Indian Wars. Interestingly, the US Army was not operationally integrated until the Korean War, and all combat positions were opened to women in the US armed forces only in 2016.

I won't say what the end of the story was for that is the book. Several things indicate that this book is more fiction than history. The basis of the story is true as researched. However, the research I have done does not show much detail about Cathy William's life, just scant highlights. That appears plausible for her story did not come to light until much later in her life; not many would have had reason to track the life of this one woman. Also, this book is a very personal story of a woman's life and presents both personal and romantic details that are likely not documented in history. That tone is my reminder that historical fiction is indeed not history. In addition, the characters in the story are relatively one dimenstion; the good are all good, and the bad are awful. That does not capture the dimensions of each individual.

Regardless, the book is readable. It reinforces the point that US history is comprised of the contributions of people of all races, colors, and backgrounds. It also reflects on the history of slavery, racism, and sexism. Most of all, the book brings to light an inspiring story of a courageous woman and prompts me to research and read the actual history.


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Monday, September 10, 2018

Orchid and the Wasp

Title:  Orchid and the Wasp
Author:  Caoilinn Hughes
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1524761109 / 978-1524761103

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

Opening Sentence:  "It's our right to be virgins as often as we like, Gael told the girls surrounding her like petals round a pollen packet."

Favorite Quote:  "And that is that we have a very simple choice to make. Do we aspire to have worth and influence and risk tragedy; or do we aspire towards love and togetherness and risk that it won't have been enough. You can't have both aspirations be equally weighted."

In the botanical world, certain types of orchids and certain types of wasps have a particular relationship. The structure of many orchids resembles that of female insects; the structure attracts male insects. A hammer orchid is pollinated by a thynnid wasp. The thynnid wasp female is flightless; copulation occurs when a male carries a female to a food source. The orchid mimics the attraction of the female. The structure of of the orchid is such that pollination occurs as the wasp attempts to carry the "female" away. The wasp is unsuccessful in carrying away the "female" but pollination occurs successfully as the wasp travels to another orchid to try its luck.

What relevance does a biology lesson have to this book? Maybe none at all. However, with such a title, I assume symbolism, and that has been confirmed in interviews by the author. The question is whether the main character is the orchid or the wasp. The further question is does it matter since both in this case seem to benefit from this interaction. Both use the other for their own purposes.

This book like many others is about a family. The father is in finance; he abandons his family and leaves them to fend for themselves. The mother is a well-known orchestra conductor but not much of a nurturer of her children. Both parents are busy living their own lives and are simply neglectful of their children. The son Guthrie thinks he is an epileptic but in actuality suffers from delusions; he is also an artist. Then, there is the daughter Gael Foess. She is the conniving hustler and the opportunist; she is an unapologetic young woman and sexual being. She is the heroine - or rather the anti-hero - of this debut novel.

The opening chapter of the book has two scenes that stand out more than the rest of the book. The book opens as Gael is trying to convince girls in her school of how they can be sexually active and yet still appear to be virgins. She is hustling a product. Later in the chapter, Gael watches her father masturbate in the shower; they then proceed to have a conversation as he cleans himself up and dries himself off. Gael is a teenager at this point.

From there, the book travels with Gael until she is in her twenties. It goes from Dublin to London to New York. It depicts her pulling away from and towards and away from and towards her family. That cycle I do understand. Our families, dysfunctional or otherwise, are our families whether it's love, approval, acceptance, acknowledgement, or redemption we seek. So it is with Gael

I love strong female characters, and unlikable main characters sometimes make for the best stories. Unfortunately, in this case, that graphic and unpleasant opening image sets a tone that I cannot get past. I need a connection to develop to envision the opening in another light. Unfortunately, that connection never develops. I am left wishing I could unsee that opening.


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Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Quiet Side of Passion

Title:  The Quiet Side of Passion
Author:  Alexander McCall Smith
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0307908968 / 978-0307908964

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

Opening Sentence:  "'Gossip?' asked Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher, wife, mother, and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics."

Favorite Quote:  "People who said they were the last person to do anything were usually confessing to something of which they were ashamed - to some flaw. Although not always - some people were the last people to claim to be the last people..."

Confession:  Alexander McAll Smith is an author who has long been on my to read list, but this is the first book I have actually read by him. He is the author of many series including the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Isabel Dalhousie / the Sunday Philosophy Club series.

This book is the twelfth and latest installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series set in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's probably not the best idea to start mid-series, but my understanding is that the books can stand alone. So, this book becomes my introduction to the author, and starting in this manner, I am sure, impacts my reaction to it.

Isabel Dalhousie is in her forties. She is independently wealthy. She is married to a bassoonist; he also happens to be her niece's ex-boyfriend. They have two sons. She works at her leisure as the editor of an obscure publication called the Review of Applied Ethics. (Aside:  Because I wanted to know, I looked it up. Applied Ethics is the application of ethical constructs and theories to a particular field, for example, bioethics, environmental ethics, and business ethics. The question I am left with. What is the purpose of ethics if not to apply them?)

Despite financial security, a husband who shares household responsibilities, a housekeeper, and a job done at her leisure, Isabel seems to have no time for herself. In this book, this results in the hiring of an au pair and an assistant. Yet, somehow, that seems to make things worse and not better.

The plot of this book is about the mother of the friend of one of Isabel's boys. What starts as an attempt to help a single mother turns into the mystery and intrigue of this book. The book is not truly a mystery though just a situation in which Isabel gets involved and feels compelled to fix. However, the plot of this book is almost incidental to the characters, primarily to the character of Isabel.

Unfortunately, I find the character of Isabel Dalhousie very difficult to relate to. Her lifestyle and her complaints about having no time are at time just annoying. First world problems, if you will. She seems to get involved in a lot of things, many of which are really none of her business. Her interference at times is unkind.

To me, she also comes across as somewhat spoiled and somewhat of a pontificating busybody. Her reflections, which seem to comprise most of the book, cover a realm of topics and often seem to go off on tangents. The book seems to have a lot of sub stories, some of which remain unresolved.

Perhaps, starting mid series was not a good idea. Perhaps, this was not the Alexander McCall Smith series to begin with. It was not quite the introduction to the author that I was hoping for, but perhaps, I will give a different book a try. This one was unfortunately not for me.


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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Story of a Marriage

Title:  The Story of a Marriage
Author:  Geir Gullliksen
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 160 pages.
ISBN:  1524759678 / 978-1524759674

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

Opening Sentence:  "Tell me about us."

Favorite Quote:  "All we could do now was to find a way to leave each other, quietly and in a civilised manner and with a sort of tender affection."

What happens when a marriage breaks up? Do you go back to the beginning and analyze every piece and every point? Do you dwell in that sadness for a while to try and understand? If your spouse is leaving for a new love, do you want to know every detail of this new relationship to try and understand? Do you look at it from the other person's perspective to try and understand?

The answer for Jon is yes as it was for the main character in Long Players. Unfortunately, neither book is the really the story of a relationship. They are both rather the musings of a man wallowing in the tragedy of a breakup. Jon, in his effort to understand, tries to see it from his wife perspective and also the perspective of the other man.

Jon and Timmy have a relationship and marriage that has lasted for many years.  They have both progressed in their careers and built a life and a family together. They think they have been happy together. Timmy is a doctor and the primary earner; Jon is a writer and the primary caretaker of home and children. The very basis of their relationship, sadly, is in a betrayal. They meet when Timmy, a doctor, treats Jon's child in a health clinic. Their marriage starts from an ending.

They have what is termed a "modern" marriage. For them, it means that they are both free to "explore" beyond their relationship and in fact share those explorations with each other. That is, until Timmy finds herself get more and more involved with someone new; exploration evolves into a relationship. All of a sudden (or perhaps it was coming all along), Jon and Timmy find themselves at the crossroads of a breakup.

What should be a story of emotion and reflection unfortunately for me is not. The book description purports a discussion of gender roles, relationships, and a larger philosophical statement. At the end, I am unsure what exactly this slim volume attempts. What stands out unfortunately is the explicit, sexual scenes which I don't need or enjoy in a novel. A relationship that should be about emotional connection and intimacy becomes relegated to instances of physical contact.

Accompanying these scenes are other descriptions of the minute details of appearance and attire. What stands out most from these descriptions is that Timmy is a runner; a lot of time is spent getting ready to run, running, and then recovering from running. Again, the emotional gives way to the physical details. Perhaps, Jon thinks the answers are to be found in these mundane details? Truly, they are not. The emotional connection for me is missing in this book. It does not become clear in the relationship, and it does not convey itself to this reader.

At the end, I am not even sure my interpretation of the mechanics of the story are correct. I am left with general sadness and much confusion. Perhaps, something is lost in translation. I just don't get it.


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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

I Was Anastasia

Title:  I Was Anastasia
Author:  Ariel Lawhon
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385541694 / 978-0385541695

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

Opening Sentence:  "If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinburg I will have to unwind my memory - all the twisted coils - and lay it in your palm."

Favorite Quote:  "When you've lived as long as I have you take each day at a time. I've not settled on any firm plan."

The story of Anna Anderson is known history. The mystery of what happened to Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, the youngest child of the Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra has long been solved. The story began with the 1918 execution of the Romanovs by communist revolutionaries. Anastasia's story eventually found a resolution in 2007. For decades, the mystery remained, and many offered solutions. Many claimed to be Anastasia. Of these, Anna Anderson is perhaps the most famous. Many books, movies, and theatrical productions, including one currently on Broadway, have told the story.

That being said, many of the stories are beautifully told. Knowing a history does not make reading a story of that history any less engaging or entertaining. This book, however, bills itself as a book of "historical suspense". Unfortunately, because the history is known - or rather because I know the history, the suspense in this book appears manufactured. Perhaps, that is my shortcoming as a reader who knows the history; my reaction may have been different had I not. Unfortunately, for me, the suspense does not ring true. I would have preferred emotion to suspense.

A big reason this book does not work for me is the circular structure. It weaves through several different time periods in several different locations. In fact, the book summary bills it as "a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents." First of all, that becomes confusing especially with abrupt jumps within the same chapter; even paying attention to the dates at the beginning of sections, I was at times lost. Secondly, the time periods and locations are sometimes so different that the jump is jarring. Third, some characters carry from time period to time period and some don't, making the trajectory of relationships at times hard to track. Finally, such a structure runs the risk of breaking the emotional connection with a story, and unfortunately, for me, that is what happens. This story has been told many times for a simple reason - it captures the imagination; it does not really need the embellishment of such literary techniques.

The story of Anna Anderson itself is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, this book does not really delve into the psychological reasoning of her actions and their consequences. It is an interesting take away in a book wholly centered on Anastasia/Anna and in which parts are told in her voice - a first person narrative. The opening and the closing of the book in fact are her addressing the reader directly. At the beginning, it is intriguing pulling the reader in. The tone of the book then goes in a different direction, only to pull back to that personal note at the very end. At the end of a circular three hundred and fifty some pages, that tone is somewhat patronizing and sadly annoying.

I would love to hear the perspective of a reader not familiar with the history. Perhaps, the fault lies with me, and I am simply not the reader for this book.


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

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Italian Party

Title:  The Italian Party
Author:  Christina Lynch
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1250147832 / 978-1250147837

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

Opening Sentence:  "Newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Michael Messina drove down the Via Cassia from Florence, he at the wheel, she with the map."

Favorite Quote:  "She began to realize that most of what we say in the follows predictable patterns. We use the same phrasings for asking for things, for talking about the weather, for expressing sympathy, for expressing affection. There are scripts we follow without even thinking about it. She wasn't learning the language word by word; she was learning it by living it."

The Italian Party is a book that tries to define itself within its own text. "Sometimes Michael felt like he was not an intelligence officer for a superpower locked in a cold war that could lead to nuclear destruction, but instead had written himself into a screwball comedy about rich people's hijinks, like My man Godfrey or Bringing up Baby. The Italian Party."

Newlyweds Michael and Scottie arrive in Siena in 1956, as Italy is still recovering and trying to move on from the effects of World War II. After a quick courtship and wedding, they are still getting to know each other. Both have their secrets and their own reasons for the wedding. Regardless, they are prepared to make a go of it. Michael's job brings him a grand vision of saving the world from communism. Scottie comes along for the ride.

 Along the way, they meet a whole cast of American and Italian characters. They also realize that their story is a very small part of grander machinations at play. The book tumbles through both their getting to know each other and getting to know Italy and perhaps most of all, acknowledge who they are themselves.

The broader story offers a commentary on America's role in the world particularly in that era. "They were arriving in Siena as part of a wave of missionaries bringing the American way of life to what they were certain would be a grateful populace." The reality they discover is, not surprisingly, quite different from what they imagine. At the same time, the broader story encompasses life in Italy, some real and some as a stereotype might image. It also transports the reader back into the Cold War era of espionage.

The narrower story of Michael and Scottie is the story of a marriage and of two people who must still grow into and own who they are as individuals. Certain big lies are at the foundation of this relationship. "That was what she had been taught. That was what he believed she had learned." The subtle difference between those two thoughts creates a huge divide. The question becomes if they can grow and mature and still create something real and true out of those lies. The issue for me is that their story fails to draw me in emotionally. I don't invest in the two characters enough to really care where their story ends up.

Perhaps, the biggest reason is that throughout the book, I am unsure if this is satirical comedy or a serious story. This applies to both the broader story and to Michael and Scotti's story. The setup of Cold War threats imply a seriousness; Michael's bumbling almost childish attempts at espionage portray a comic character. Scottie's appearance of immersing herself into the local culture imply a thoughtful look at that culture; her frequent return to memories of the United States and her obsession with horses pull away from that theme. At the end, I am somewhat entertained but somewhat confused as to what the book is really about.


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