Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Amma is anxious.  Tonight is the opening of her newest play, and although she’s been doing this for years, she’s never before opened in the National Theatre.  This feels so much more colossal, so more auspicious than anything else she’s undertaken.  She thinks back to her modest beginnings, when she partnered with Dominique, an independent, creative woman like herself with ambitious dreams and a personality to match.  And she thinks about all the people who will be there for her.  And we will meet many of these people as the book unfolds, and we will hear each of their stories unwind through the pages as they all wind back to Amma.

Everything about this book is unique.

The writing is almost without punctuation, written as if it is one, very long, run-on, but poetic sentence.  However, it is divided by starting new lines,

very

strategically.

While I admit this took a bit of getting used to at first, I found it worked – and actually made the writing extremely powerful.

Most of the characters are women of color, often of mixed heritage, and often identify as LGBTQI – and each is given a deeply vivid story to tell.  While most experience racism of some kind, they confront it in many different ways, and most finding a way to either rise above or cut right through.  There are many characters – and to be honest, I did find it sometimes hard to keep track of them all – but each had her/their beauty, each was sympathetic in some way, and each was was someone you came to think of as an actual, tactile person.

It is easy to see how this book won the Booker Prize in 2019, as it is beautifully composed, with gorgeous characters and with a memorable round of stories to tell.  It will keep you glued and it will warm your heart.

I”ve got another MUST READ for you!

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Franny is so ready to be away from New York City – but is she ready to be on an island with her family for two whole weeks?  How will this work, given all that has happened with her husband, Jim?  Will they be able to maintain the wall of secrecy they’ve maintained from their son, Bobby?  Will Charles, Franny’s best friend, and his husband, be the buffer she hopes they’ll be?  As it turns out, Franny is not the only one anxious about the trip, and we learn from each of the vacationers that the aspirations they bring with them on this journey impacts both themselves and each other.

This was a perfect summer read – light but with substance, honest but with some fluff, and gritty but with humor.  I was definitely engaged.  I found myself giggling at some points, but also found myself feeling tenderness for some of the characters at many points as well.  And maybe there was a little of the idealistic here, a little “fantasy,” with the setting on the island of Mallorca, the beautiful house, the mountains, the characters who forgive easily, etc., but isn’t that what fiction is for?

At this moment, when things are so dark, with an ongoing pandemic, with the uncovering of decades of racial injustice, with a frightening election on the horizon, this is a wonderful escape into a sunnier place.  Let yourself vacation here!

 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Emira was in the midst of celebrating one of her best friends’ 26th birthday, when she was called, late at night, to come babysit for little Briar.  Pleading an emergency that would bring police to the home, Mrs. Chamberlain wanted Briar out of the house.  Needing the cash, and actually adoring spending time with Briar for whatever reason, Emira arrived in heels and her short skirt to take Briar to the grocery store where Briar was entranced with the nut selection.  When an off-duty security officer created an outrageous scene over what Emira was doing with Briar in the grocery store late at night, this led to an uprooting in Emira’s life that she never would have ever imagined.

On the surface, this is a fun read, full of twists and cringe-worthy moments.  It’s almost as if we are seeing the characters on their way to driving into a virtual car crash before they actually do – we see them heading toward it, we feel it coming, we are, in our minds, trying to stop them and we can’t. And it isn’t exactly a crash, and it isn’t fatal, and so we can ride with them and enjoy the irony of the moments as they careen into each other, so to speak.

But look a little deeper and you see that layered in these pages is a much stronger message.  Once again, we see the White folks telling the Black woman (Emira) what is best for her, what she should be doing with her life, as if they know.  They are blind to their own shortcomings, but dole out guidance and, indeed, intervene on her behalf, uninvited.  Believing themselves “nice,” they are merely patronizing and using her as a symbol of their liberal leanings.  A scene I know is not unique.

This book is powerful in its subtlety and will be far reaching because of its accessibility. Highly recommend this one!

 

The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John

As the Christmas season approaches, it is decided that two new temporary hires will be added to the the Ladies’ Frocks Department at Goode’s department store, in Sydney, Australia (circa 1950).    This creates quite a buzz among the staff, who are fairly set in their routines and social circles.  As we come to know each of the women and her personal challenges, we see how the influx of these new women brings with it a fresh air for each woman’s life circumstance.   Bonds form and there is a warm embrace that envelops around the Ladies’ department of Goode’s after all.

I was looking for a lighter novel to read on the beach, and this was a placeholder.  It is definitely light, sometimes funny, and the characters hold charm, for sure.  The writing aims for an old-timey, 1950’s-ish tone, with a nostalgic air.

On the other hand, it is hard to read this without feeling that it is somewhat vacuous.  The message here is clear that no female character can achieve fullness in their life without being  married to a man, even if that man is dull and insensitive.  And even if a woman is smart, it is up to her father (yes, of course, another male) to determine if she is allowed to foster that intelligence to its fullest.  Everyone here with any power is male.  And I do understand that this was the 1950’s but I am not convinced that all that much has changed.

I suppose I am just tired of acquiescing to the fact of this power scenario, and going along with the status quo without calling it out.  I can’t do it anymore.  And maybe if we start calling it out in the books we read, we’ll gain confidence in calling it out in real life as well.

 

 

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!

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 ..!)

 

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.