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.

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.

 

 

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

funnyinfarsi

It is hard enough to be a seven year old girl, navigating family, friends, and school.  But in 1972, a little girl named Firoozeh had to navigate a move from Iran to a suburb of LA, where she did not know the language, was not familiar with the food, did not have the extended family around for support, and had to function as her mother’s interpreter as well as find her own way.  Fortunately for her, her intelligence, her family’s support (mostly!), and probably most importantly, her humor, enabled her to adapt and do so very successfully.  This book is essentially a collection of her memories of growing up in this colorful family challenged by the immigrant experience of balancing their own culture and tradition with integrating into the society into which they’ve landed.

First, I have to say that this was a good, light distraction from the other reading I’ve had to do these past 2 weeks!  If you’ve been like me, you’ve done more reading about viruses and epidemiology and how pandemics can be mitigated in the past 2 weeks than you’ve ever had in your life – even if you’re in Public Health.  So I am thankful that I’ve had something like this to alleviate the anxiety that all of that other reading has caused.  I implore you to use this time for more solitary reading — it will be therapeutic for you and it will socially distance you from others, helping to mitigate the spread of this awful coronavirus.

As a memoir, this book was amusing and entertaining to a point, but, I believe, a missed opportunity.  Dumas did enrich her stories with the rich flavors and aromas of Iranian cuisines, ceremonial customs, and, in particular, her father’s often comical and endearing personality quirks.  And we did get a sense of the warm acceptance into the community her family experienced in 1972, which contrasted drastically with the reception she received when they returned just after Iranian Revolution and the American hostage situation. But other vignettes, such as those about her father’s fascination with Denny’s Restaurant or her uncle’s dieting fads were much less engaging.  While an opening into her culture was an opportunity, peeking through a curtain into their family secrets felt almost voyeuristic.

This was less a memoir than a collection of short stories.  As such, it was entertaining enough, but did get a bit old after a bit.

Not a “Must Read” but good for a few chuckles.