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.

 

 

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Outside and across from the Dutch House is where Danny and his sister, Maeve, sit together regularly to digest their past.  It is almost as if going back to the scene of their childhood trauma might relieve them of them of the anger they harbor, of the resentment they feel.  Toward the mother who fled from them, and toward the stepmother who never let them near.  But if anything, it probably does more to perpetuate the ire.  But maybe that is what they are holding onto.  Maybe that is what is holding them together.  Maybe that is all that is holding them together…

I really liked this book and am struggling to write about it.  I feel like I need a bookclub meeting or an English class discussion to fully digest the symbolism packed into the pages of this story.  I’m not sure I’m wise enough to recognize and/or articulate it all myself.

The Dutch House seems to represent something different to each of the characters.  We see how Danny, like his father, has a passion for buildings —  the bones, the design — and Danny, like his father loves the Dutch House, and all its architectural splendor.  And it is home, such as it was for him.  His mother, like his sister, Maeve, see it only for its ostentatious gaudiness.  They shun it and flee it.  And when Andrea, the stepmother, enters the scene, with her pure avarice, she sees it only for the status it will bring to her and her daughters.  But does it bring happiness to any of the characters?

There are moments of awkward writing in this book, such as with the rapid shifting of time, when Danny and Maeve are sitting in Maeve’s car, at the Dutch House, later in life, reminiscing about their earlier days.  We find them there at sudden moments in the middle of the story and have to time travel with the author back and forth.  Sometimes it keeps the plot moving, but sometimes it is confusing.  Aside from these moments, though, the writing is engaging and the characters are colorful, sometimes raw,  and authentic.

I highly recommend this book, The Dutch House.  It will hold your attention long after you’ve finished the physical pages.

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Feeling deflated by a failed marriage, Laura finds refuge in her new position — assistant to a very kind, older gentleman, the author, Anthony Peardew.  As they work together in his tastefully opulent home, she gradually comes to learn about his history, his heartbreak, and the secrets that have been kept hidden for many years.  When he dies and leaves his estate to her, he also leaves the legacy of his secrets to be reconciled by her, as his final gift.

This is a sweet story.  The characters are endearing and there are multiple threads that entwine to keep the plot loping forward. It is engaging and imaginative in many ways.

On the other hand, one can argue that once again, we are reading about a woman being rescued by a man.  Laura’s life has been ruined by one man, and she is paralyzed; her only savior comes in the form of another man, her generous boss.  Moreover, she cannot be fully complete nor can the mystery of the secret of the estate be resolved until she is married to yet another man.  Really?

Will we never get beyond our Prince Charming fixation?

That said, the book is light and amusing and, like all good fairy tales, has a happily-ever-after ending that wraps it all up in a neat bow for the reader.

If that is for you – go for it!

 

 

Still Me by Jojo Moyes

Louisa is taking the plunge – she is reinventing herself, moving to NYC, starting a job as a personal assistant to a Fifth Avenue society wife.  It may seem daunting at first, but she will do this.  She will overcome her tiny room and her ugly uniform.  She will adjust to her insecure and capricious boss and the dysfunctional family who now employs her.  And surely everything will be ok when Sam, her paramedic boyfriend from back home in England, comes to visit – won’t it?  Louisa is determined to make this work – although it may cost her more than she ever imagined it would.

This third in the Me Before You trilogy is a book that I believe is most valued for its lovely characters.  While the plot may be a bit predictable and a little cliche, the characters feel like your comfortable old slippers that you’ve just found behind the dust bunnies under your bed.  Louisa is caring and honest to the bone.  When she returns home to her quirky and loving family, it feels like we are all coming home.   And when she’s with Sam, even when things are not going so well, we feel a tactile electric presence between them even when we know they are fictional characters.  Somehow, with words, Moyes is able to create actual warmth rising up from the pages of this book.  I think that is what I loved about it – the warmth.

So even though it is wrapped up a little too perfectly in its package, it is a sweet, fun read that makes you smile and root for the good folks.

I’d love to know if you agree!

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

As a young girl, Jane observes her brother and his girlfriends with a keen eye.  She watches her brother’s casual attitude toward women and sees how they hurt.  Later, Jane embarks on her own journey of relationships and it is no surprise that we accompany her through much growth before she is able to enjoy a healthy, honest, mutual relationship of her own.

This is actually a fun, lighthearted (for the most part), and entertaining read.  Some lines made me actually laugh out loud, because of the clever sarcasm that Jane slings at everyone around her.  Her character is kind and honest to the core, which is refreshing.  She is someone I’d absolutely want to be friends with – so much so, that when the book was finished, I felt I had lost a charming, new friend.

I only wish there had been depth to the story.  Yes we hear about her relationship with her father, which was so tender.   But she is utterly cavalier about her career, in spite of the fact that she is extremely bright and has such potential.  She is also more of a follower than we’d expect of someone with such a strong personality otherwise.  It feels inconsistent.  And disappointing.  But maybe I”m looking for too much or taking her too seriously.

The book, though, definitely served to put a smile on my face and that is worth so much at this moment in our collective experience in 2019.  So if you’re looking for some distraction from all the muck, this is it!

Enjoy!

 

The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams

Lulu is on a mission to save her husband, Thorpe, who is trapped in a prison camp known for being the harshest and meanest of its kind.  But she knows that the package she’s carrying is so valuable that if she gives it up too freely, there will be no saving Thorpe.  So she does what she has to do and escapes with only this to find shelter with his sister, whom she’s never before met, isn’t even sure she can trust.  With Thorpe’s sister, she is destined to sort out both the future and their very complicated past.

What I love about Beatriz Williams’ writing is that she weaves deeply complex characters into political intrigue/historical fiction using an almost casual and personal voice.  You feel like it’s your old friend who is telling you this lovely story.  And your friend is vulnerable, has had a difficult history, and so your heart goes out to this friend and you want very much to hear so much more.

And while this story occurs during the era of WWII, it is unlike most other WWII stories.  There are only casual references to Jews, camps, and to Pearl Harbor and the Japanese, because much of the story takes place in the Bahamas.  But it is interesting as an example of how the War impacted the world.  Here, we see how British royals may have been involved remotely, for instance, and may have played a role in maneuvering intelligence and power from distant corners of the world.  And it’s not clear if it was for good or for evil.

One of the most prominent and beautiful characters in this novel, Elfriede,  also suffers from post-partum depression.  She is feared, ostracized, even sent away because of her illness.  But she is the kindest of characters, has the most generous heart, and feels passionately about each person she loves.  She is the ultimate hero in the story.  I love that her character, suffering as it is, is celebrated in this story.

Once again, one of my favorite authors has come through for me –  for all of us!  Hope you enjoy this book as I have!

 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

For anyone who is in therapy, has contemplated therapy, knows someone in therapy, or should be in therapy – and yes, that’s everyone! — this is a great book!

Lori Gottlieb, a therapist who has come to being so by way of having been a screenwriter, a medical student and a journalist, gives a thoughtful account of her experience of going through a sudden, devastating breakup which rocks her world.  Feeling like she’s been blindsided, she seeks out the comfort of a therapist, Wendell (not his real name) whom she expects will join her in her rage against “Boyfriend” who has deserted her after seeming to be committed to their relationship for the past 2 years.  What she receives instead surprises her and gives her space to peer inside and in fact,  find genuine growth and much deeper comfort and understanding than she’d imagined.

A number of people recommended this book to me and I began it reluctantly.  Because of what I do everyday, I thought it might not be the escape that I love books to be.  To my surprise, though, it was exactly that.   Gottlieb is a gifted storyteller and weaves her own story with those of some of her clients.  As she begins to unveil her own journey, she also draws parallels with those of a few of her clients and we come to know and appreciate each of them as they too peel off the layers of their own defenses. We learn some of the terms of the trade, and how therapy works, in a sense — how she gives and takes, as a therapist who is in therapy, and how even if she is a therapist, it is hard to see your own defenses at play.    And she does all of this with kindness and humor.

This is an extremely engaging read – a true story that reads like a novel.  Be ready to laugh and to cry and to seriously think about going into therapy if you aren’t in therapy already!

 

The Storied Life of AJ Filkry by Gabrielle Zevin

I have my friend Jimmy to thank for this one…

AJ is aware of how ornery he has grown and still cannot help himself – no, he almost delights in it, even as it might actually be responsible for driving away the few customers who might visit his tiny, fledgling island bookstore.  But when he is outright nasty to the attractive, new publishing company rep, he actually feels a twinge of remorse.  Two discoveries after this, one a loss and one a find, both that occur in the confines of his bookstore, lead to major changes in AJ’s life that open up his heart once again to the possibility of love and connection to others.

While this is a somewhat unlikely story, and requires some bit of blind acceptance, it is a sweet one, nonetheless.  We’d all love to believe that a middle aged man, set in his ways, living alone, would take in a completely strange toddler left on his doorstep.  It is a beautiful image, but I’m not sure how realistic it is.  But this is fiction, so we’ll go with it.

On the other hand, the setting is a bookstore on an island (a mashup of my 2 favorite kinds of places). The characters are utterly endearing, from the awkward Amelia, the publishing rep with the bad taste in clothes and the great taste in books, to the police chief with the expanding taste in books and the predictable taste in party foods.  They are characters we engage with easily and comfortably, as we would an old armchair.  Even the plot winds around our hearts and tugs gently but surely.  It will get you.

This is a sweet novel and perfect for anyone who loves talking about books – and reading about others who love talking about books!

 

How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas

Dory has not skipped multiple grades as have all of his older siblings.  He has not acquired any advanced academic degrees and he has not defended his PhD thesis.  He believes he is barely even noticed by anyone, even when he routinely runs away from home to test his theory.   The only one who does seem to see him is Denise, the only other person in his class with no friends.  Denise, who is known to be chronically depressed, even suicidal at times, and who shuns every other human being’s attention.  As Dory works hard to decipher just who he is in the context of his odd, cynical, intellectual family, he learns that one doesn’t need a PhD to be kind or to find justice.

This is a quirky coming-of-age novel that will no doubt wind up on your local indie foreign film screen one day soon. Simultaneously dark and sardonically comical, the story goes where you least expect it to go.  And the characters are wonderfully unconventional.  Dory himself is so painfully awkward and is so utterly endearing that the reader feels for him from the very first line.    Even his siblings, who are narcissistic and socially objectionable, are still quite funny and entertaining.  Even Denise, who is depressed, isolated, and cynical, offers her own brand of glib commentary on the world which is often sarcastic.

On the other hand, it is also a  quite serious commentary on the emotional crippling of the educational system.  While Dory finds himself surrounded by siblings who excel academically, he finds no one is able to mentor him in the area of emotional intelligence.  This he has to figure out on his own, and this is his greatest challenge.  His siblings are all emotionally suppressed, have no friends and have never learned to express or cope with emotions in any healthy way.   Ironically, it seems they look to the youngest of them all – Dory – as an example.

I actually really liked this book and I believe you will hear more about it and its author.