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.

 

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

Pearl loves her mother, Winnie – of course she does – but she cannot help feeling so often misunderstood by her as well. It is likely this reason that underlies her reluctance to share with her mother that she’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, even though she’s terrified of what it might mean for her future. Likewise, Winnie has secrets of her own – in fact, most of her early life in China before she immigrated to the US has been kept from Pearl. An intervention by Pearl’s “aunt” Helen may change all of this.

Here is yet another epic saga of hardship and tragedy, teaching us so much about Chinese culture and history, but making us work so hard for it. There is rich, colorful detail about the years of the second world war, the angry relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese, the terror of living with the threat of destruction by the Japanese and the shifting internal forces in China. Moreover, being a woman in China has never been easy, and we are bestowed with stark reminders of this in many vivid, brutal scenes in this novel.

What is hard to endure, however, is the overbearing, martyred tone of the narration of Winnie’s story. Yes, she suffers and yes we feel her pain, but it is so utterly relentless that it becomes hard to sustain belief that so much evil can befall one person. There are few if any breaks from the constant tension, little respite from her search for hope or love- only at the very end is there any spark of light, but by that time, we’re just exhausted. While I saw the beauty and nobility of her character, I was also very close to giving up on her many times, I have to admit.

There is certainly much to be learned from this novel, but it comes at a cost. If you’re willing to put in the work, it may be worth it – but I feel like it is work. Is that what reading is? Up for discussion…!

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 Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

“Mad Molly” has surprisingly been able to survive up there in her house on her hill, but now that her daughter Tillie has returned, everyone wonders how it will go for them. In the past, Tillie has brought nothing but misfortune for everyone around her. Even Tillie doubts that she can bring anything but danger. The one good thing she does bring is her talent for sewing clothes of the latest fashion, and this does not go unnoticed by those who eye her closely as she joins the persistent Teddy McSweeney at her first town dance. One by one, they approach her to become their seamstress, but there is a history that cannot be ignored. And that history comes back to haunt all of them.

This is a mean little novel. I found the writing to be coarse and fragmented and the many characters so unlikable (with a few exceptions) that it was hard work to keep track of who was related to whom. Even Tillie, the heroine of the story, was kept so vague, so distant from the reader, that I felt I barely got to know her. I was granted only tiny morsels of her past life, which were tossed in as tiny gems buried in the muck of the small town politics and gossip that took up most of the novel. While I was told of the intricate details of the dresses she sewed, I was told almost nothing of the life she’d lived before she came home to her mother. One must bond to the characters to feel for them.

A bitter disappointment, this one. Don’t waste your time.

 

 

 

Truths I Never Told You by Kelly Rimmer

Grace is on the brink and she doesn’t know where to turn. She knows she can’t be trusted with the care of her own children – she just can’t pull her mind out from under the dense blackness that has taken root there, and she knows that it’ll happen again if she has another child. It’s happened each time before. She just has nowhere to turn.

Decades later, Beth is grappling with her own frustration. She is clearly just stressed – her father is dying, she’s sleep deprived from a new baby, and she’s just not feeling up to going back to work yet. So why is everyone on her case, asking her what’s wrong? She’ll be fine. Won’t she?

The narrative between these two women brings us back and forth through the generations of this vulnerable, tender family and winds us through a beautiful story of love, heartbreak, and resilience.

The difference between these two women is also just one generation, and the epic difference between their generations is the passing of Roe v. Wade. One generation has the luxury of choice – the other lives without any control because they do not have that access.

I find myself writing this post on the morning that the Supreme Court of the US, staggeringly, has announced the repeal of Roe. I am still numb from this, even having tried to brace myself for what I knew was coming, although I still held out hope that some of the judges would come out on the just side of history. But no, the 6 conservative judges’ allegiance to their biased, misogynistic, utterly anti-life, hypocritical base was clearly too strong a tie.

Women will now return to the back alleys, the sepsis-inducing, life-threatening, desperate means of trying to gain control of their lives, which men put them at risk of, once again. Women will have to endure pregnancies they do not want, bear children they’re not ready to care for, and those children will likely live in conditions that are sub-par, to say the least, because those same Conservatives never vote for safeguards for these children once they are born. Hypocrisy at its very gravest.

Health care should be left to health care providers and their patients. Everyone else should stay out of it. Abortion and contraception is health care. Period.

This is a MUST READ at this time – I really wish the SCOTUS judges had read this novel before writing this decision.

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 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!

 

 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

If you don’t play hockey, or follow hockey, or at least tolerate hockey, you will not last long in Beartown. The entire population, intimate as it is, is consumed with it. Kids begin skating once they can walk, and everyone is on the lookout for those charmed few, those who have that natural gift, that drive, that will send them through to the A-team. Kevin certainly has it, and with Benji at his side, fighting off any opponent who might threaten his path, he is a sure shot. That is, until a crime is committed, which might just change everything.

Fredrik Backman is another writer who, by virtue of the beauty of his writing, has me convinced that there is no way I should ever even think of trying to write. He has the uncanny ability to weave complicated, layered, and realistic plot lines around complex and gorgeous characters.  And unlike with some novels with so many characters, we come to know each one so well that we never confuse any of them, never wonder who is whom, because we have fallen in love with most of them. The warmth with which he imbues them grants them their familiarity. They become our dear friends.

Also, there is a beautiful message here about the challenge of loyalty; whether that be loyalty to one’s family, to one’s friends,  to one’s team., or to one’s own values. Most of the characters find themselves wrestling here with conflicting loyalties. and some impress us and some disappoint us. But all of them are so stunningly human in their struggling. My favorite is Ramona, who is a bartender. She’s depicted as someone who’s seen it all, and who has been loyal to those who have lost the loyalties of most everyone else. She sees people for who they are, not who they profess to be. I would love to be more like Ramona.

This book has it all – characters, plot, warmth, important message – all the makings of a MUST READ!

 

Shrill by Lindy West

In this memoir, Lindy West shares her alternatingly traumatic and triumphant experiences as a feminist writer venturing into online journalism. Because she is also fat (her self-description), she also becomes a target in our fat-phobic, one-size-fits-all-definition-of-beauty society and is branded by trolls with repulsive vitriol. When she tries to stand up, for example, against comedians who use rape as a topic for jokes (which is about as funny to most women as I imagine Putin is to most Ukrainians right now), she gets accosted online by the most offensive trolls imaginable, with comments liked by some of her friends. (It is pathetic how quick people are to take sides against those who are perceived as vulnerable.) Lucky for women, she is a strong, smart, and good-hearted person who rises above and sees the forest for the trees, speaking out for all of us. She proceeds to make history in her accomplishments, one troll at a time.

This book is replete with paradoxes. West is vulnerable yet powerful. She puts herself out there, stands up and stands out in a public forum, knowing she’ll open herself up to criticism – and omg, does she – but yet she stands up again and defends herself so strongly that she silences others to a screeching halt. She hears the noise, feels it, but does not allow the noise to infect the clarity of her argument. Despite feeling isolated, she thinks about women in general and not just herself as a woman. She also sees herself as others see her, yet she will not bend to their perception of who she is.

Some may find her story stirring, even jarring. We are not used to hearing women with loud voices. We are not used to hearing women be comfortable and secure in larger bodies. We are not used to hearing women stand up for themselves when they have strong opinions and strong minds, especially when they go against the (male) grain. But I know it’s about time we got used to hearing and appreciating them!