Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Jo and Bethie are so excited to move into their new home on Alhambra Street in Detroit in 1950.  It is a very big day for the family.  And once again,  Jo is unable to perform in a “ladylike” way and disappoints her mother.  Why can’t she be more like her sister, who seems to just know how to be the perfect little girl?  From Bethie’s point of view, however, being the pretty little girl may hold some power, but it also comes at some formidable peril.  As the two sisters grow and navigate the decades of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and so on, we have the privilege of following along with them on their turbulent, sometimes traumatic, and occasionally victorious journeys.

This is an epic novel for Jennifer Weiner, who has traced these decades of history with warmth and insight, from the perspective of these two sisters who struggle over these decades to find themselves.  Jo and Bethie, and the other characters woven around them, are so real that when they lose themselves, we feel lost as well, and when they hurt, we hurt.  They are flawed and vulnerable and often become collateral damage in each others’ sisterly wake.  But we find ourselves also moving on when they do and rejoicing at their successes as our own.

Herein Weiner is also giving voice to women, who have evolved over these decades and yet not evolved, whose roles have expanded and yet not expanded.  Weiner addresses the many ways in which women are expected to fulfill all roles – mother, homemaker, breadwinner, and wife, and yet find time for themselves, to feel fulfilled and to fall in line with society’s expectations.  She loops in race and prejudice,  primarily from the perspective of the Jewish experience of a people who have been targeted but who also have their own stereotypical racial biases.  In addition, she also gives voice to the women who have experienced sexual violence and sexual harassment over these decades and how it impacts and informs their entire life experience.  It is quite symbolic that Jell-O, the quintessential 1950’s, traditional Thanksgiving side dish associated with Jo’s worst adolescent evening is later in the novel thrown all over an emblem of her daughter’s supposed progress.  Jell-O becomes a symbolic fuck-you to all of the supposed progress, calling out the hypocrisy in the idea that things have changed enough.

At first glance, this novel might be written off as a simple story of two sisters, but it is in fact an articulate commentary on the struggle of women for power vs being overpowered and for status vs the status quo.  It also directs us to be hopeful for future generations, especially if we stick together and have each others’ backs.

 

 

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

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When Hedy Kiesler receives her first ostentatiously presented, dozen bouquets of hothouse roses from an admirer after a performance at the theater, she has no idea that it is from the well-known, millionaire, munitions manufacturer, Fritz Mandl.  While she can’t imagine that she’d really be attracted to this older man, she finds she is actually taken in by his charm and charisma.  In actuality, she has little choice, as her father pointedly insists that Hitler’s advances in Germany in 1933 foreboded danger for Jews in Austria as well, and their family needed the protection Mandl might provide.  As Hedy acquiesced, she gradually became trapped in a marriage which was more like a cage.  As she plots her escape, she incurs a stain of guilt that she subsequently spends years of her life trying to repair.

This is in fact, the story of Hedy Lamarr, actress, scientist, and inventor.  After she comes to America, she spends her days behind the camera and her evenings combing physics textbooks in order to master an ideal system to direct torpedoes without being able to be intercepted by an enemy, for use during WWII.  She is not only beautiful and talented, but also brilliant and creative; much to the disbelief of the men around her.  But knowing her secretive backstory gives her inventions context and helps the reader understand her motivations and connections to the war effort.

While this book is based in fact, it is written as fiction, and therefore so easy to read.  Right from Page 1, it draws the reader in and it is difficult to put down until the end.  There is humor and warmth and even a bit of suspense, and certainly anger on Hedy’s behalf.  But overall, there is a great deal of respect for the person she was and the accomplishments she achieved.  It also showed how strongly she had to fight to be respected for her internal beauty and intelligence when she had such striking external beauty.

 

They May Not Mean To But They Do by Cathline Schine

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Joy has been extremely busy – although she’s well into her 80’s, she still works at the museum, and she still cares for her ailing husband, who is needing more and more care these days.  As Aaron deteriorates further, Joy’s children seem to be more and more concerned that she can’t handle it all, which makes Joy feel ironically both supported and misunderstood.  She is truly exhausted, but she does not want Aaron to be placed in a nursing home, where he’ll be disoriented further and not cared for as well as she knows she can care for him.  As Joy’s world continues to change, her role in it seems to become a moving target.  Will she find her place?  Will she see where she fits in?

Every once in awhile, I read a book and do not realize how important a book it is until I’ve finished it and look back on it.  This is one of those books.

This story focused on seemingly small details of Joy’s life and her conflicts with her children, Molly and Danny, were often fussy and whiny.  This,  I believe, was the point.  Life is often fussy and people are often whiny.  Especially within families.  (And especially within Jewish ones!)  And I suppose it gave it that very realistic tone that we all recognize and maybe don’t want to hear more than we have to, because we hear it enough in our own lives!  But it certainly does ring true.

And the details of Joy’s life and her struggle to find her place, I believe, really gives one a feeling for what it is like to age in our society.  There is no good place for the aging individual in our society, especially those whose minds are sharp but whose bodies may not be entirely fit.  It might be a little hard for them to get around and do for themselves, but they still need to be involved and contribute to those around them.  For example, while Joy’s children sought to do the right thing, it was hard for them to accept her on her own terms in this next phase of who she wanted to be.  They tried to mold her into their idea of who she should be, but that wasn’t who she was or wanted to be.  Fortunately, Joy was not one to be pushed around.  I am not sure everyone who ages is this strong or independent, and when they are – and assert themselves – are listened to.

I think this is an important book for us all to read and to empathize with those growing older – because we will all eventually get there!

 

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

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Aaron Levy cannot believe he will have to abide the sullen nature of his new mentor, just to be able to have a peek at the rabbinical documents and letters found under the stairs of an historic home outside London.  Helen Watts, this new professor he’s been asked to assist, seems not to have smiling nor social graces in her repertoire.   In truth, he realizes as time passes, that they both have issues to work out as they work together to uncover the secrets that have been buried under these stairs for centuries…  And centuries ago, in the 16oo’s, after taking 2 orphans to London with him as he fled the Spanish Inquisition, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, blind, but trying to teach a few students, has compromised and allowed one of these orphans to be his scribe.  Ester, the bookish adolescent who dreams of nothing but to study and learn as much as she can as any boy might, has taken her seat at the writing table and begun to scribe the rabbi’s letters for him.  But as she grows older and reaches the age of marriage, this becomes more and more controversial and Ester devises a plan almost in spite of herself.

This is a magnificently crafted work of historical fiction.  The author weaves the plot by gracefully swinging back and forth between the modern day historians and the original characters, layering each of the characters’ stories on each others’ in order to build the connections — and the suspense as well.  And as the story builds, the characters deepen, and they each become much more sympathetic in their own ways.  As the scribe Ester becomes more and more real to the two historians, both Aaron and Helen become more and more human themselves and discover that each of them has used history as a way to escape their own humanness.

The writing in this book is brilliant.  It is beautiful, rich, and full.  The characters are complicated and imperfect and human and they are hard to leave when you finish the book.

You will also learn a lot of history from this book.  The time is the 1600’s, when there were many who had just fled the Inquisition.  People were terrified to speak their minds, fearing that if they said anything against any church, they’d be tortured and killed.  Women had one role in society and that was to marry and raise a family – and if they did not marry, their lot was to struggle and do housework for someone who was married and it was a hard life if you chose that route.  And then came the plague in London, which devastated much of the population.  It was a gruesome time.

But in spite of the ugliness of the time, the beauty lies in the resilience of the people living through it – and that is what is captured here in this story.

I loved this book – I am confident you will too!

Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

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“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.

All I Love and Know by Judith Frank

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Matt and Daniel were a happy couple, comfortable with their life in the liberal town of Northhampton, MA – that is, until they learn that Daniel’s twin brother and wife were killed in a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem.  Dazed by the knowledge that his brother wanted Daniel to raise his two young children should anything happen to him, Daniel and Matt immediately flew over to Jerusalem to confront the situation.  The emotional turmoil and upheaval of their lives that ensues take Daniel and Matt through challenges they never imagined they’d have to face.

There are many layers to this story – the relationship between Daniel and Matt, their relationship with the children they suddenly are responsible for, the political issues surrounding the death of Daniel’s brother, the conflicts between the religious family and their sexual orientation – just to name a few.  And the characters are also very complex – between Matt, who isn’t Jewish and who never imagined being a parent and is thrust into both worlds, Daniel who is grieving in his own complicated way, and Gal, the older of the children who is in kindergarten when her parents are killed.  Their story is told in a simple manner with tactile details that give the story a warm authenticity.  And while there is a lot of love among the characters, there is grief, loss, and fear that each is digesting and this strains the relationship among all of them.  When the end of the book comes, I felt that I’d really experienced this saga with actual people, they all felt so real.

While this is not necessarily a “must read,” it is a powerful story with very real characters that will become your family as you read them.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

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Rachel is a headstrong, fiercely independent young, Jewish woman living with her family on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800’s.  Unfortunately, when her father’s business falters, it appears that the only solution is to marry Rachel off to an older man (with 3 young children), so that the two businesses can merge and hopefully prosper.  Rachel is devastated, as this certainly will delay the realization of her dream, which is to one day sail off to live in Paris.  Her best friend, and housemaid, Jestine, tries to convince her to resist, but she too is powerless in resisting the cultural pressures of her time and status as a woman.  The two of them experience many heartbreaks and successes together as the saga of their lives moves forward.  The one success that Rachel achieves, although this is one that causes her great pain as well, is that she ultimately becomes the mother of Camille Pissarro, the painter.

The writing of the tale is as lyrical as Pissarro’s paintings themselves.  The author paints both St. Thomas and Paris with words, filling in the hues, the aromas, the sensations of each world. There is also a great amount of magic and fantasy, as Rachel’s faith mixes with that of the native culture of St. Thomas, and conjures up many fictional, imaginative stories that Rachel records for herself and for her children.  And although there are a few paragraphs in which the author sort of meanders onto sidetracks, it is a story that keeps one glued because the characters are ones you don’t ever want to leave.

I admire Alice Hoffman for telling the story from Pissarro’s mother’s perspective.  It is not just a fictionized biography, but it is truly a story of a strong woman in a time when women weren’t allowed to be strong.  She shows how difficult the times were and how women’s powerlessness was analogous to that of the slaves at the time.   Neither could own property, could determine who they would marry, or truly had control over decisions that were made for them by the men in their lives.   This further deepened the emotional strength of the story.

Oh, how I’d love to go back to the Musee D’Orsay now!