The Best of Times by Penny Vincenzi

A complicated motor vehicle accident involving a “lorry” (semi) and many cars is the focal point of this novel.  We learn a bit about each of the characters that are involved as a prelude to the accident, and then it happens, sort of in slow motion, almost as they experience it.   But it is the aftermath that carries each story line (and there are many that intertwine).  The accident complicates and devastates, but in some ways revives and empowers.  In every case, it changes the course of each of the lives of those involved in it.

There are quite a few characters, but the author does a wonderful job of endearing each of them to the reader, such that it is easy to keep track and stay interested in each of their trajectories.  And transitions are particularly smooth.    And because there are so many different story lines, the book never, ever gets dull.  Honestly,  a few of the characters are so charming and feel so real that by the end you’d like to invite them over for tea!

This is an utterly delightful novel that I very highly recommend!

 

 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

where the crawdads sing

At only age 5, Kya watched her mother carry her suitcase and walk away from their shack in the swamp, without even a glance back.  Most of her siblings already having gone, her older brother Jodie, her protector and confidant, soon said his goodbye as well.  It was then down to only Kya and her father, Jake, who was as stingy and unpredictable as his disability checks.   Fortunately, Jodie had coached her well on how to navigate her way around the swamp, how to make herself disappear, and most importantly, how to appreciate the natural wonders around her.  Because of the caring eye of a few who did look out for her, Kya  did become much more than merely the “Marsh Girl.”   But did the Marsh Girl also become someone capable of murder?

This is a riveting story, yet one told with subtlety and beauty and utter sadness.  The innocent heartbreak of young Kya just tears at your heart and you can’t help feeling her loneliness yourself.  Because the writing feels so intimate, as Kya grows, you feel her loss and vulnerability and her few victories personally, as if going through them yourself.  And the analogies from nature all around her are quite striking.

My favorite writing technique of flipping from one time period to another is used in this story to full advantage.  Going from when Kya is tiny and left alone to fast forward, when  a dead body is found in the marsh, helps to lay down the root of a suspense that grows over the course of the story.  It doesn’t play much of a role in the earlier part of the book, because we are so taken with little Kya, but it builds greatly later on as it comes to a crescendo.  It’s really quite patiently and beautifully constructed.

If you haven’t guessed already, this is definitely a “MUST READ.”  It’s beautiful, well-written, so very sad, but also suspenseful – definitely could not put it down!  Highly recommend it!

 

 

 

 

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

only woman in the room

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.

 

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

green

This is a profound commentary on race, masquerading as a coming of age story of a white boy in a predominantly black middle school in inner city Boston.

Dave has terrible anxiety about navigating 6th grade in his challenged, underfunded public school.  He is not only white, but terribly non-“baller” (non-athletic), wears all the wrong clothing, and is afraid to fight physically to defend himself – a proverbial lamb thrown into the lion’s den.  His unlikely defender comes in the form of a short, khaki-wearing, quiet, intellectual, black, fellow 6th-grader named Marlon, who steps in and ultimately becomes his only friend.  The boys communicate mainly through a common love for the “uncool” Celtics, but they bond on a deeper level of shared temperaments and a common goal of getting into the more prestigious middle school, Latin.  While they do grow close, there are still things that Marlon seems to keep to himself.  And even as Dave feels a victim as a minority in his school, he also very gradually faces the reality, in his own middle school understanding, how he actually gleans privilege with his white skin that Marlon cannot.

The voice utilized in the telling of this story is powerful and symbolic.  It is Dave’s voice yet he has fully adopted the vernacular of his black peers.  He is desperately seeking approval from these peers and needs to speak their language, quite literally.  This language brings a raw and gritty texture to the story which feels so honest.  What are also honest are the characters themselves, as they are real and complex and not stereotypical.  Nor are they predictable – and guides the plot toward its both expected and truly unexpected routes.

This novel is a subtly disturbing commentary on our current state of affairs with regard to race.  The American “dream,” as Dave’s “Cramps” (not a typo) spells out late in the book,  is that if a person works hard enough, they can overcome any obstacle and succeed.  This may be true for some, but the truth is that it is not a level playing field and we have to acknowledge this.  People of color are denied advancement at every level compared to whites.  And although there are many groups who are persecuted — my own (and Dave’s) group included, as the rise of anti-semitic violence has been noted to be staggering over the past few years — there is still not clear, daily aggression and micro-aggression toward these groups as there is toward people of color.  The cards are still stacked against them, and we have to stop denying this and start turning this around.  And the first step is for white people to be aware of and acknowledge our privilege.

Maybe more can be enlightened by reading this book?

 

 

Shopaholic to the Rescue by Sophie Kinsella

shopaholic to the rescue

After reading so many non-fiction and, frankly, disturbing books in a row, I needed something light and fun – and this was just the thing!

There’s clearly something amiss when Becky is not enthusiastic about shopping.  She and her mother and the shopaholic cast of characters are on a trek to Las Vegas in search of Becky’s father, who’s gone missing on a mysterious “errand” with Becky’s friend Suze’s husband, Tarquin —  and she’s found she’s lost her shopping groove.  She also may have lost her best friend, Suze.  And her father.  As they all set out to find Becky’s father, they learn about her father’s kind-hearted mission to right a past wrong and they find a wild way to support him in the end.

While the previous Shopaholic book was a painful disappointment, I have to admit that this one was adventurous and highly amusing.  None of these shopaholic books will be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but they are entertaining, engaging, plot-driven, heartwarming, and endearing – and they are a wonderful escape from these stressful times.

I highly recommend this as a delightful distraction from your everyday routine – and you don’t even have to tell anyone that you’ve indulged, as I’ve admitted to here!

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

the atomic city girls

June  has just arrived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, circa 1944.  It is a town that has just been built, but does not exist on a map, and the job she’s been hired to do involves monitoring gauges on machines she is not even told the purpose of.  Her roommate, Cici, is more seasoned and while she could care less about the purpose of her job, her real purpose is to search for a husband among the many soldiers who are stationed right here in Oak Ridge.  Meanwhile, Joe, a Negro construction worker who has also come to the town looking for opportunity, misses his family deeply and just means to keep his head down and earn as much as he can in order to send his good wage home, while trying to keep his younger friend out of trouble.  Eventually, these lives converge as their mission in Oak Ridge comes to a crescendo, and they all become swept up in a historical moment in our dark history.

This is an effective historical fiction novel about a very bleak moment in the history of the world.  While it deals with this global issue, it tells the story through the lens of fictional but realistic individuals who were involved in the production of this most destructive weapon ever created – and used! – on our planet.  It relates the social and political class and racial issues that were on everyone’s minds at the time, whether it was finding a husband for the women who did not have access to higher paying jobs, or accessing decent housing because of one’s skin color.  It also reveals the attitudes towards the final product of Oak Ridge of each of the participants, which varied widely from pride to guilt.  The army’s secrecy throughout the whole project is stunningly creepy.

I’d recommend this book as a both an important piece of historical fiction, and as just an engrossing read.  I listened to it on CD and it held my attention the whole way through!

 

Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

black girl:white girl

Generva Meade has come from a family who assisted with the Underground Railroad and who is deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, and she is currently assigned, her freshman year, to live with a conservative, religious black roommate at the prestigious Schuyler College where her family has donated founding money.  She is very excited to get to know her roommate, Minette, and is sorely disappointed when she sees that her roommate does not reciprocate this enthusiasm.  In fact, her roommate, she finds, is sullen, angry, and a fierce loner – scorning white and black girls in their dorm alike.  Generva is undaunted, however, and pursues the friendship in spite of the coldness with which every attempt at kindness is greeted.  When Minette becomes the target of hate pranks, Generva is her staunchest protector, even as Minette ignores her help.  And as the year progresses, and Minette’s situation worsens, Generva is also confronting her own family distress, with her mother’s unraveling as her father’s past transgressions are catching up to him (as is the FBI).  The final incident of Minette’s tragedy pushes Generva to face her own past as her family faces theirs.

I rarely listen to books on tape, but this was the result of a very long car ride – and I’m not sure if that tainted my view on this book or not.  It is a difficult story, both emotionally and technically.  There are many tangents, that are later significant but that are sometimes hard to follow.  The story is also steeped in history, shameful and bleak, and had many references to the attempts on the part of many whites who tried to help, but who expect more appreciation than they are deserving of.

The character of Minette is a tragic one.  She is trapped between the world of her conservative, Christian, independent and proud Black heritage and the more modern, socially-focused black girls in her dorm.  She refused to socialize with the other black girls just because they were black like she was, but this left her alone and deeply depressed.  She also refused any help with her studies, even as she was struggling academically, which further plummeted her self-esteem.  As she became the target of racial incidents, it became more and more heartbreaking to see how alone she was.  Generva could not comprehend why Minette would continue to repel her kindness.  It is not entirely clear if Minette’s ignoring of Generva is from a resentment of white privilege or just from her own self-absorption from depression – or perhaps both.

This story had the potential to be excellent, however, it feels like it tries a bit too hard.  The nagging earnestness on the part of Generva that is borne of her own family history and connections and her own wish to rid herself of that white guilt becomes cloying,  At least this reader/listener shouted more than once, “Just leave her alone!”  It is unclear why she would continue to try, when repelled so many times, when she would have had other friends in other groups.  Why did she need to befriend only this one girl?  Was it the challenge?  Was it because she was black?  Was it because her family was so disconnected from her as she was growing up and that gave her so little self-esteem? Was it her own sense of guilt from her family’s activities?

If you are psychologically inclined, you might be interested in reading this, as there is a lot of depth here.  But if you are looking for a quick, entertaining, light read, this is not the book for you!