Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

All Elizabeth has ever wanted is to be given the freedom and the respect to pursue her theories and experiments in chemistry. Unfortunately, given that it is the 1950’s and America is just not ready for a woman to be anything but a wife or a mother, she is thwarted at every turn. That is, until she meets her match in Calvin Evans, a fellow scientist who recognizes, appreciates and encourages her endeavors. When Calvin has an unexpected accident and their lives are turned upside down, Elizabeth finds a way to meet her new challenges in the most unexpected way imaginable.

This is a sort of Eleanor Oliphant meets Julia Child story, if you can imagine that! It is a bit of an outrageous plot that actually, somehow works. While much of it relies on just going with it, if you do you are rewarded with a delightful and imaginative ride that is at once pensive, philosophical and, occasionally, true laugh-out-loud moments.

Elizabeth feels like a hard character to get to know. She’s been used poorly, taken advantage of, and not respected in spite of her vast intellectual capacity. Because of the time she lives in, she has a hard time trusting and has a very closed circle of those she can open up to. We feel her vulnerability and root for her throughout the story, feeling protective of her, in spite of her awkwardness and abruptness. Most importantly, we love what she inspires in others – the confidence to be smart and one’s authentic self, which was not an easy task in 1950’s America for women. It’s really an ideal scenario that would have been a wonderful reality for so many had it been true.

There are a number of interesting commentaries on religion here as well. When she admits that she does not believe in God, there are severe repercussions to her reputation.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

In this second in the Beartown trilogy, we happily find ourselves back in Beartown, where we learn that the sacred hockey A team has lost its funding. That is, until a shadow company suddenly appears through the machinations of an ambitious politician, propping up Peter Andersson, the team’s general manager. There is one minor condition, however: the team’s most ardent (and most intimidating) supporters, the “Pack,” will lose their spot in the stands.  Because of Beartown’s small town interconnections, this stipulation has big implications, further dividing the population in mean ways.  As their games approach, their rivalry with the opposing team of Hed grows fierce, and what should be “just a game” goes far beyond.

Backman once again has kept this reader utterly glued to this novel, as it has everything one could want – complex characters with palpable hearts; a plot that is elaborate but clear; and writing that is insightful but not preachy.

The warm love Backman feels for his characters is contagious.   Backman has a way of showing the vulnerability of some who are troubled, where it may originate from, and how those who are labelled as “bad” may actually be so good, particularly when it really matters. The members of the “Pack,” for example, who, on the outside, appear as “hooligans” are fiercely loyal to each other and to so many folks in Beartown. When someone is in need or disaster strikes, they are the first ones there to help, to do whatever menial task is necessary. That is loyalty and that is what good people do. While they are described as having unconventional ways of expressing themselves, yes, and they may sometimes end up on the wrong side of the law, they are nevertheless the ones folks rely upon. 

This is a beautiful story, once again. And I look forward to when #3 comes out, next month – I am guessing we won’t be disappointed! 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Bert Cousins has managed once again to escape his home full of young children (and another on the way, somehow), this time to attend a christening party to which he was not even invited. Oh, he knows Fix Keating, a bit, but he never knew Fix’s wife was so beautiful – stunning, really. After aiding Fix in locating the just-christened baby who seemed to have gone missing, Bert finds himself alone with the lovely Beverly. It takes just one kiss between them to set their lives, and the lives of their children, on a whole new trajectory.

Ann Patchett has imagined very realistic characters within the pages of this novel, each of whom is coping with the fallout from this decision between Bert and Beverly. The characters are richly portrayed, as are their familial relationships. The children’s connections are strong, strained, tender, and challenging. In spite of the physical distance from each other that grows as they do, their connection is instinctual, reflex. And like in most families, their attachments are complicated by their tangential stories, layered with both love and resentment.

There are times in our lives we say or do something, make a certain choice one way or another, that we think inconsequential, but may actually have ramifications far beyond anything we can imagine. This story exemplifies this over and over again in a very powerful way.

 

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums

6-year old Aoife has had a very rough day. On a trip to the mall to buy new shoes, her mom stopped their car outside the mall and started crying and yelling loudly enough that she was brought to a special hospital. Aoife knows her mom’s been having some difficulty – even at 6, Aoife knows most moms do not talk to their dead sons. Now Aoife is being taken care of by her Uncle Donny. It feels like it is now up to her to solve the mystery of how her brother came to be dead, because maybe that will bring her mother back home. When she enlists her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her next door neighbor/best friend to solve this mystery, things get all the more complicated.

I was hoping for more from this story. Relaying the story from the perspective of the 6-year old with her imaginary friend was a clever move. However, from the outset, there was minimal description of the characters themselves, and because I couldn’t picture them, I found it hard to connect to them. I did feel for Aoife – her relationship with her mother was endearing and I felt compassion for her mother and her mother’s circumstances. But the other characters, such as the uncle, the mother’s boyfriend, and Aoife’s best friend, were all obtuse and unidimensional. Similarly, because the voice was continuously from Aoife, the plot felt simplistic and even the twists were blandly delivered.

I think the idea was creative, but ultimately I was not impressed by the execution. I’d be curious to hear what others think…!

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

Julia cannot believe how far she’s come. Considering where she started – a teen mom, struggling to keep a roof over her head – she’s feeling almost embarrassed at the size of her new home, with its pool and its technology that her husband Brad insisted on installing. When she meets her new neighbor, Valerie, she learns about the stately old tree whose roots they’ve apparently encroached upon with the building of their pool. She also meets Valerie’s son, Zay. And so does Julia’s daughter, Juniper. And here is where it all starts to get complicated…

I loved this book. Therese Anne Fowler confronts two common themes – climate change and racism, both obviously serious and challenging – but does so without preaching and with warmth, tenderness, and suspense. Creating characters that are entirely relatable, she wraps us up in their lives as if we are living right there in the neighborhood with them. She also uses an extraordinary narrative voice of “we” (presumably the neighborhood voice, perhaps even the book club members from early on in the book) which gives the reader the feeling that we are chatting over coffee with the neighbors about what is happening in our back yard. But we’re also inside the heads of the characters, so we understand their past and why they choose the actions than impact their futures. And just as if we’re watching a bad accident in slow motion, we can’t help yelling for them to not move forward, as we see them heading toward disaster. We are so invested in them because it feels like they really are our neighbors.

One concept that I’d not really heard much of prior to reading this was the “purity pledge” which this book brought to light. This is a vow of celibacy that girls (of course, mostly girls) take during a ceremony in their (often Southern Baptist) Christian church. It was most popular in the 1990’s and was apparently a source of great shame and struggle for so many. Yet another way to oppress women, deny their sexuality, and keep them under wraps, I suppose. (see article in NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/us/abstinence-pledge-evangelicals.html)

A Good Neighborhood is a quick read, but a valuable one. I’d even go so far as to give it a MUST READ rating. I think the writing is excellent, I think the story is valuable, and the message is critical, especially in this moment.

 

 

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Alice has recently arrived in Kentucky from England, with high hopes and romantic ideas on how she’ll begin her new life with her very handsome husband, Bennett. Sadly, she’s been quite disappointed so far. Expecting to embark on newlywed adventures, she instead finds herself living with not only Bennett, but with his very demanding and intrusive father, who has been dictating exactly everything that goes on in the home. When Alice hears about a chance to work delivering books to the folks who live in the more remote areas nearby, she sees it as her only means of escape. Only as she becomes more committed to this reputedly “radical” venture does she begin to see a way out of the hold her new family has on her.

Unknowingly, I stumbled upon yet another book about the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky in the 1930’s and 1940’s – and this story was just as gripping as the last (the last one being The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek). The plot builds and surprises and we root for Alice in a way I wasn’t expecting. The characters are strong but multidimensional. Even Alice, who appears meek at first, grows into herself and emerges as a hero in many ways. Other characters may start strong and break, just as in real life.

What is beautiful is the bonds that build amongst the women of the packhorse library – those who work together to create the team who deliver the books to the people of the area. They are as different as they could be: different ages, different abilities, different backgrounds. Yet, they work together as a team and respect each other’s talents. Their bond is what gets them through.

This is a beautiful story that depicts an interesting moment in American history – the packhorse librarians of Kentucky. It is also just a beautiful story.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

When Astrid witnesses the sudden death of her long-time acquaintance, it shakes her to her core. She has a sudden realization about her own life, how fragile that might be. Astrid has never been a nurturer, never exuded much warmth or patience, but she’s working on that now. And as she struggles to make up for the past, she begins to really learn who her children and grandchildren have become, almost in spite of her.

While this is not high literature, nor a deeply moving novel, it does serve up an amusing, light summer read while sitting under your umbrella at the beach. The characters are vague but interesting enough – and the plot is not exactly complex, but it holds your attention until the last page.

It does speak to both the highlights and the pressures/challenges of living in a small town.  While it might be easier to have the familiarity of being surrounded by those one has grown up alongside, there are also the expectations, the assumptions that come along with that. Astrid’s children have each been coping with these pressures in their own ways, sometimes effectively and often dysfunctionally. One of her children fled the town because of this pressure.  It seems that Astrid had never taken this into account until some of the crises in the story emerged.

This is definitely NOT a MUST READ, but it’s an appropriate book to pack along with your bathing suit and towel…

The Art of Losing by Lizzy Mason

Harley’s only wish is that she could unwind the clock, just reverse time to the moment before she made the impulsive decision to leave her best friend’s party before assuring her sister had a ride home with someone other than her own drunken boyfriend, Mike. Maybe then her sister, Audrey, would not be in the Neuro ICU in a coma, having just barely survived a near-fatal car accident. And although it was not Harley at the wheel, she feels so much responsibility for the whole mess, it may as well have been. Overwhelmed with anger and guilt, Harley muddles through Audrey’s recovery, all the while sorting out issues around her relationships, substance use, and how to manage and express her own very complicated feelings.

Written as a young adult novel by an author who has experienced addiction and rehab treatment herself, this novel seeks to provide a wake-up call for those who try to deny that those in their teens can be addicts, and/or that just alcohol alone can be a drug that can endanger lives. Many minimize the risks of teenage binge drinking that is seen both in high schools and on college campuses, but it in fact takes a huge toll on both the physical and the psychological health of those affected (and often those around them as well) – and alcohol intoxication is a cause of 30% of fatal car accidents in the US. Only when one takes treatment seriously, whether through residential or intensive outpatient rehab or through regular group meetings like AA, can one begin to find a path toward recovery.

Unfortunately, while the message here is crucial, the story itself is part after-school special, part soap opera. The characters are a bit flat and over-privileged (every teen has their own car, somehow), and the plot just misses the mark in plausibility. For example, we learn that somehow, just when Harley realizes her boyfriend is really a dick, she discovers that her literal “boy next door” is really the love of her life? Really? Way too pre-packaged, in my opinion. Why does she need another boyfriend anyway? I would have loved to see her come to an understanding of herself without another guy in the picture, all on her own. That was a bit disappointing…

In spite of my misgivings about the delivery, this novel still raises truly valuable messaging around addressing mental heath treatment, particularly addiction and substance use. If it can sway even one young person to confront their own issue, to turn to someone for help, then the author will have accomplished tremendous good.

 

 

 

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Osla and Mab come from very different backgrounds, but suddenly find themselves on a train headed toward the same, mysterious destination. What with the war on, who knew what they’d be brought in to do to fight the Nazis, who seem to be speedily and frighteningly making their way toward London.  What awaits them is a challenge beyond their imaginations, and an opportunity to prove that they can do more than be “witless debs.”  What also awaits them is a profound friendship that brings its own challenges and heartbreaks as well.

This is an amazing yarn of historical fiction that will keep you on the edge of your seat from the very first page to the last. Do not be daunted by its length, because it will glide by in a heartbeat and you’ll only wish it had lasted even longer (although you will be happy that it didn’t because you’ll finally get some sleep!). The writing is brilliant, with the story structured by flipping back and forth from during the war to just after the war, creating a knot of suspense that keeps getting tighter and tighter throughout. The characters are strong and vulnerable and we come to love them, even when they are imperfect and rash. And even if some of the final scenes are a bit implausible, we believe them anyway, because the drama is right there where we want it – no, need it – to be.

And we learn quite a bit about how the war was actually won against Hitler and his army. It wasn’t necessarily just about sheer force, but rather intelligence, breaking code. Somewhere in a small town outside London, on a compound where secrecy was maintained above all else, codebreakers – often women – were employed around the clock to break the codes the Germans were using to communicate their war plans to each other.  In addition, this base was utilized to enable false messages to be sent back, to mislead the enemy.  Apparently, this was done by those sworn to secrecy on threat of treason to the crown. 

This is another MUST READ – you won’t regret it, I promise!

 

 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Cussie Mary is never more satisfied than when she is able to carry a new bit of reading material to a beloved patron, whether it be a young, aspiring forester or an elderly, near-blind seamstress. She loves her mission as “Book Woman”, working as a Pack Horse Librarian here in Kentucky, and does not wish for any other role in what others might perceive as a lonely life. Pa, though, has a different idea. He seems hell-bent on finding her a husband, and continues to light the courting candle, much to her dismay. What ensues opens up her very narrow world to unimaginable possibilities, both dangerous and hopeful.

I adore how literature can shine a spotlight onto pivotal moments and impactful individuals in our history, instructing us without ever having us enter a classroom. In this dramatic read, we learn about the US initiative to encourage literacy in the remotest parts of Kentucky, bringing books to those who would otherwise never have had access. These brave women (and some men) of the Pack Horse Librarians walked or rode out on their own mules or horses for miles each day, delivering donated books, magazines, and newspapers to folks living in the rough, mountainous terrain of Appalachia. Children and adults who barely had enough to eat gained sustenance on what they learned from this program, and these women touched the everyday lives of their patrons in so many ways.

We also learn here of the Blue families of Kentucky as well. These families have a rare blood disorder called methemoglobinemia, which gives the skin a blue appearance. Cussie Mary is so afflicted and this sets her apart. She is shunned by white and black folks alike, many afraid to even touch her for fear of catching it (it’s not contagious), thinking it something from “the devil” or worse. She is treated with scorn and derision by so many. Only those able to see through color see her for the kind, caring person she is. How universal is this concept, eh?

There are many tender moments here, woven through the story, but I believe what is missing here is humor. While many books deal with significant issues and enlighten us about historical moments of note, there are, intertwined in them, moments of levity to alleviate the tension. I felt there were not enough of those here. There is an almost relentless tone of tension here that is somewhat wearing. A perfect novel has a bit more balance, in my opinion.

This is still an important story to share and I believe a worthwhile read. Just prepare to be anxious – you can’t avoid it here!