Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera

The 1920’s may have been “roarin'” for some, but it didn’t take the stock market crash to bring financial despair to Gertrude and her girls. No, she had that thrust upon her much earlier, with the boll weevil devastation of her husband’s cotton crops a year earlier and his drowning himself in alcohol for comfort.   Now, all she can do to save her four daughters from abject starvation, is to leave them with others until she comes up with an urgent action plan.  As she enacts her plan, and without meaning to, she draws in the support of two other women, Oretta and Annie, who are confronting their own, shared, past.  Very quickly, she finds herself slowly enabling them to be strengthened by her evolving strength.

This is a gorgeously written novel that is engaging from the very first words.  What is most magnetic are the characters – they are so beautiful and private,  vulnerable and proud – they pull you right in.  You just wish for the opportunity sit with each one, to drink sweet tea and to talk for hours.  Oretta, especially.  Oretta has worked for Annie all her life, as has her own mother.   She is kind, gentle, compassionate and wise, and has had losses and loves that have shaped her.   She is the person who would take in a young, sick child,  a perfect stranger, and care for her as her own.

There are so many layers tucked into the pages of this work of historical fiction, which make it so strong.  Layers of plot lines, layers of personality traits to each of the characters, even layers of voices.  I am in awe at the ability of a writer to incorporate all of this into a novel without it saddling the novel with sagging detail.  This one moves quickly, keeps the reader always engaged, and leaves you wanting more time with it.

Although this is a painful story and the details are difficult, I very highly recommend this book – and give it a rare MUST READ!

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.  Many books have taught me this, but few as starkly as this one.  And in this moment in our history, I feel it is imperative for all white folks to be reading books like this one – at the very least this one.  Because racism is our problem.

Robin DiAngelo,  through trainings and lectures on racism and working with people of color, has helped both herself and many others become aware of the phenomenon of white fragility.  Because the power of white folks over black folks is so fundamental to the structure of our society, white folks have the luxury of being able to tune it out while black folks cannot.  What DiAngelo focuses on in this book is the responsibility of us white folks to do our own work and to take responsibility for our own part in the perpetuation of this power differential, which is racism.

One of the first steps is to separate the notion that being racist or committing racist acts falls into the binary of the good/bad person.  As DiAngelo points out, our images of racists are generally from the 1960’s, when we see white people brutally attacking black people, and we equate all racist acts with those people.  On the other hand, we have to realize that we as white folks inadvertently commit acts of racism frequently, and while our intentions may not be bad or hurtful, it does not mitigate the fact that the impact of our actions or words may still be.  This does not make us bad people – but it does make us racists and it does still mean we’ve committed racist acts.  We are still responsible for having committed them and are still responsible for changing our behavior and avoiding these acts in the future.

What are we to do?  As I am continuing to learn here, we are responsible to learn about the history of racism, the systemic ways in which white folks have had power over black folks since 1619 in the U.S., and how we need to get over ourselves.  We have to learn to let down our defenses, be open to criticism, and be curious and honest about learning how to be better and more just.  It’s not about being nicer, but more sensitive and responsive to the other.  As DiAngelo states in the book: “Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them.”  And this is hard.  We will make mistakes.  But if we don’t try, we will not make any progress toward achieving a more equitable space for others and a more just society.

And everybody benefits from a just society.

Let this book be the beginning of our work.

 

Neuland by Eshkol Nevo

if he thinks about it, Dori has to admit that he has been feeling diminished by his life lately — disconnected from his wife, possibly over-connected with his son Netta, and unrecognized for his passion for teaching history to the next generation.  That is, until he is called upon by his sister to travel from Israel to South America to search for their father, who has just disappeared.  During the course of this search, he encounters Inbar, a young woman who is embarking on a journey of her own, as she seeks to distill her own trauma and sort out her own way forward.  As their paths converge, they bond almost inadvertently and what they discover is quite startling on many levels.

This book was initially hard work.  At least for me, it took about 250-300 pages to become engaged in the lives of the characters enough to really and truly HAVE to see it through.  Once I was there,  however, it definitely reached that “page-turner” level.  Moreover, it grew in complexity as it progressed  It was as if the seeds had to be planted and given time for the roots to take hold.  Once they were firmly embedded, the story was then able to branch out, creating a complex plot line that fully blooms.

One of my favorite characters is Lily, Inbar’s grandmother.  We meet Lily as a grandmother, whose memory is failing.  And we meet her in glimpses of her memories of her younger self, making the arduous trek to Palestine from Europe just before the war.  We see the hopeful young pioneer with a dream of what Erez Yisrael, the Land of Israel, will be: the homeland of the Jews, the refuge for those with no other place to go.  And we see her own personal struggle with choices she makes for herself, for her country, and for her ideals.

There is a lot to digest here in these pages.  There is a lot of discussion about the land of Israel,  where the Jewish homeland should really be and if what is happening now is actually working.  Is Israel today a failed experiment?  Who has the right to make that decision?  Are there too many people in Israel broken by wars there to make these decisions?

This would be a fantastic book for a book club, were it not for the length of the book.  (This tiny review does not at all do it justice. ) On the other hand, since we’re all still pretty much stuck at home anyway, we have time to read very long books!  Maybe give this one a try.  I”d be curious to hear what others think about it.   We’ll have a mini-book club discussion right here on this blog…

 

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique cannot understand why she has been personally requested to conduct the interview of the legendary movie star, Evelyn Hugo for Vivant Magazine.  It is not as if she’s made a shining name for herself there.   Beside her one truly great piece about assisted suicide, she hasn’t written all that much she’s terribly proud of — but perhaps this is finally her big break.  And what a story this should prove to be!  Seven husbands!  (Monique cannot abide her even one…) This should get someone’s attention…

Taylor Jenkins Reid seems always to employ an inventive method of telling a story.  Here it is a story within a story, as we sit side by side with Monique, drinking in Evelyn’s pour.  And it enables us to get to know both women, their stories and their struggles, as they get to know each other. And what stories they have to share!

Both characters defy the stereotype, the norm.  Evelyn is unapologetically ambitious, which I love seeing in a female heroine.  So refreshing!  Evelyn Hugo aggressively goes after what she wants, is smart about it, and knows who she is dealing with at all times.  And while she suffers consequences of her actions sometimes, she does not wallow in self-pity.  She pulls herself up and moves on.  She is the ultimate cool, and we love rooting for her.

This is a warm, engaging, and honest read with characters who you will miss as soon as you come to the final page.  Even the husbands are ok (well, some of them ..!)

 

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

What would it be like to quit your job and spend a year studying wine?  No, I mean, really studying it – not just drinking it.  Learning how to appreciate the various aromas, textures, degrees of alcohol, tannins, and acidity and be able to blind taste them and name the grape, the label and the year it was made without peeking at the label!  What might it be like to hang with the sommeliers of New York’s finest restaurants to learn what is considered important in the service of these wines?  Or to research where all these crazy, lofty ways of describing wines came from.  Well, Bianca Bosker has done this and she’s been kind enough to share her journey with us in the pages of Cork Dork.

In her quest to become a sommelier, Bosker smells everything in her kitchen in her home and in her city.  She insinuates herself in the world of the sommelier by befriending a top somm who brings her to blind tastings and allows her to witness the training that each somm puts themself through.  Trailing other waiters, working in a wine cellar in a restaurant, getting to taste a vast quantity of fancy and less than fancy wines, Bosker widens her scope of experience very quickly.  She travels around the country and around the world in this quest, visiting restaurants, vineyards, and scientists who help her understand how she can best go about understanding and perfecting her art.

What makes a good wine good?  What makes a good sommelier good?  What makes a good wine description good?  These are questions she seeks to answer during the course of the book and she seeks out answers from many different sources.  Throughout the whole time, she is studying and practicing and honing her tasting and olfactory skills, trying to prep for the certification exam.  And while she learns, so do we, as she sketches out for us her findings.

I do have to confess, that I do think some of the descriptions are bullshit, as she even cops to; however, I do respect the devotion and the obsession that the sommelier does have to go through to become certified in this field.  And now I have a newfound appreciation of exactly what that entails!

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

While Anna has always been curious about her father’s “errands” for work, she has never questioned them.  On the contrary, she adores accompanying her father and loves that he entrusts her with knowing how to conduct herself with his business associates.  So why is it that she suddenly has become too old to continue to go? Does he not trust her anymore?

On the other hand, life has become quite complicated for her father,  Eddie.  He’d thought he’d figured out a way to save them from the poverty that surrounded New Yorkers in the late 1930’s, but it has become more complicated than he’d predicted.   And no one in the family really understands.  And he must protect them from understanding fully.

This is a hugely ambitious novel of historical fiction takes place just before and during WWII, primarily in New York harbor, focusing on the New York Naval Yard.  Once Anna has grown, she is employed in the building of the warships in the Yard, and becomes entangled, in her own way, in the complicated world her father has left behind.

It is a bit of work, this novel.  This is not an easy read.  There is a lot of technical wording and esoteric jargon — seafaring-related –that admittedly flew right over my head.  Sometimes this is a bit mind-numbing, I have to admit, but after awhile, it sinks in subconsciously.

On the other hand, it is likely that this very detail is what ultimately creates the understanding of the drama that builds up in later half of the book.  It is the excruciating detail that enables us to visualize exactly what is going on when each of the characters encounter their respective dangers and we are right there experiencing those dangers with them.

I also loved these characters.  Anna is a strong, painfully lonely character who is an admirable story heroine.  She fights for what she wants to do, works hard and abides ridicule and interminable prejudice in order to achieve her goals, earning the respect of her male peers by her endurance.  The reader adores cheering her on.

So I suppose I am encouraging patience and adherence for this book – it does pay off in the end for a dramatic and heartfelt story line.  You will have to be willing to learn a lot about ships, sailing, and naval structure, but you will glean a reading experience with tenderness, complex characters, and a build-up to great suspense.

 

 

 

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda

Avery Greer could not imagine that her best friend Sadie, so full of life, would have killed herself.  That very morning of the end-of-season party, after which nothing was the same, she’d come to Avery for help with deciding what to wear.  Sadie clearly intended to join in the festivities.  Then why had she not come?  Why had she never answered Avery’s text when Avery asked where she was that night?  As Avery struggles to piece together the answers, she feels the shadows of someone trying to thwart her efforts.   Is she just too close and too enmeshed in Sadie’s life to get a clear view?  Or is she too close to not look guilty?

I have to say that especially at this time, I was looking for something distracting – and this fit the bill  This mystery was dark but engaging, with an ominous cloud hovering above as we meet each character, suspecting all and trusting none. Avery is such a lonely character that we feel compelled to blanket her with compassion, and that is what keeps us tied to her throughout the story.  And her story grows deeper and sadder as it goes on.  And as it twists and turns, and as we feel the eyes of the small town peering at her accusingly, we feel the injustice of her possibly being a suspect, just because of the position she’s been put in by life circumstance.

Every once in awhile, I love a good murder mystery.  It is not my usual genre, but it is always fun to get back to.  It is challenging, keeps me guessing, and I am always trying to figure it out – and usually fail miserably.  But I love the surprise of it.

The Last House Guest was on Reese Witherspoon’s reading list.  Now it’s on mine too!

 

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Welcome to the chaotic world of the newsroom, circa mid-1900’s, as reporters capture the world in all its form and color onto pages of printed black and white, for an English language, international newspaper set in Rome.  These newspeople, while famed to be wildly aggressive and competitively ambitious, of course also have frailties and vulnerabilities that come with being human.  In the vignettes that are strung throughout this work, each of the characters — some reporters, some editors, some business folk — has a back story that is as poignant as the news they work together to bring to the outside world.  The question is, how long will their fledgling paper be able to survive?

This sometimes disturbing, often endearing novel reads almost like a compilation of short stories, as the vignettes almost seem to stand on their own.  On the other hand, they clearly tie together, with characters often making cameo appearances in each others’ stories. The writing style is beautifully unfeigned and gritty.  The characters are, as the title implies, imperfect, and their lives are as well.   Each of their stories is surprising and unpredictable – truly refreshing!  But we come to know them, develop an affection for them, and empathize with them – we can relate to them because they are so human and so real.  By the end, we have a feeling of almost having ourselves sat with them at the broken desks of the newsroom and inhaled, alongside them, the smoky odor of its stained carpet.

I respect the way the author has allowed problems to be left unresolved in many of these vignettes.  For example, there is a 40-something year-old woman who finds truly imperfect love.  We see very clearly that her situation is not the healthiest one.  The lover she has chosen is pretty much a jerk, actually. and our hearts break a little for her.  When a friend tries to help her see how she is being taken advantage of, and she reacts by breaking off the friendship, we lament this as a willful blindness.  But I believe the author’s point here is, do we really know what is best for someone else?  Who are we to judge?

There are many cringeworthy moments in this novel – as there are in life.  And that is the point.  And that is what I love about this book.

Come read, cringe, revel, and just live with these characters.  They will enrich you as genuine people (not fake ones) do.

 

Season of the Dragonflies by Sarah Creech

Lucia has had no intention of being a part of the family perfume business.  She has never been a natural at mixing scents the way her sister, Mya, was, nor has she had the confidence in dealing with clients as her mother had.  But when she finds herself mourning both failed marriage and dead acting career, she has no choice but to return home.  Upon arriving there, however, she finds that her mother and sister have created a situation that could threaten their business forever, and it may be up to Lucia to intervene.

This story definitely has charm and a sort of lyrical lightness to it, which was a great diversion from what is happening around us at this moment of coronavirus.  The characters are amusing and pretty, albeit a bit monochromatic, but they do hold our hands through the ride of the plot. And the plot, while it brings us through some fantastical elements (which are never my favorite, I admit), is engaging.

But now it’s time for me to ramble…  I guess I just wonder why so many authors feel compelled to wrap up their characters in a neat bow before sending them all off into the sunset for the grande finale, when that is not necessarily how life happens.  I understand this is fiction, and we’d all love to think that we can make life be that way.  And maybe fiction is the only place where life is that way.  But can’t we be ok with how life really is?  Can’t we be ok with people not being perfect?  Can’t we be ok with the problems not necessarily being resolved, even though it’s hard?  I would think that we’re more evolved than that.

I’m not saying I like books unfinished, but I think that ensuring that everyone is tucked in and sated is not necessary either.  It’s too neat.

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now, and leave you all alone now.  Sorry!

Maybe this pandemic is taking its toll and making me more ornery than I thought.

I hope you’re all hanging in there and staying 6 feet away from others, wearing your masks (even though our schmuck of a president won’t wear his!), washing your hands and staying healthy.  And I wish medical and economic recovery for all of us as soon as possible.

Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family —  a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth.  From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again.  Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.

This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t.  We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life.  Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next.  There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality.  This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live.   We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism.  And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting.  And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.

But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman.  There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else.  This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity.  After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.

I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them.  She obviously loves them dearly and they do her.  I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.