Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera

The 1920’s may have been “roarin'” for some, but it didn’t take the stock market crash to bring financial despair to Gertrude and her girls. No, she had that thrust upon her much earlier, with the boll weevil devastation of her husband’s cotton crops a year earlier and his drowning himself in alcohol for comfort.   Now, all she can do to save her four daughters from abject starvation, is to leave them with others until she comes up with an urgent action plan.  As she enacts her plan, and without meaning to, she draws in the support of two other women, Oretta and Annie, who are confronting their own, shared, past.  Very quickly, she finds herself slowly enabling them to be strengthened by her evolving strength.

This is a gorgeously written novel that is engaging from the very first words.  What is most magnetic are the characters – they are so beautiful and private,  vulnerable and proud – they pull you right in.  You just wish for the opportunity sit with each one, to drink sweet tea and to talk for hours.  Oretta, especially.  Oretta has worked for Annie all her life, as has her own mother.   She is kind, gentle, compassionate and wise, and has had losses and loves that have shaped her.   She is the person who would take in a young, sick child,  a perfect stranger, and care for her as her own.

There are so many layers tucked into the pages of this work of historical fiction, which make it so strong.  Layers of plot lines, layers of personality traits to each of the characters, even layers of voices.  I am in awe at the ability of a writer to incorporate all of this into a novel without it saddling the novel with sagging detail.  This one moves quickly, keeps the reader always engaged, and leaves you wanting more time with it.

Although this is a painful story and the details are difficult, I very highly recommend this book – and give it a rare MUST READ!

Neuland by Eshkol Nevo

if he thinks about it, Dori has to admit that he has been feeling diminished by his life lately — disconnected from his wife, possibly over-connected with his son Netta, and unrecognized for his passion for teaching history to the next generation.  That is, until he is called upon by his sister to travel from Israel to South America to search for their father, who has just disappeared.  During the course of this search, he encounters Inbar, a young woman who is embarking on a journey of her own, as she seeks to distill her own trauma and sort out her own way forward.  As their paths converge, they bond almost inadvertently and what they discover is quite startling on many levels.

This book was initially hard work.  At least for me, it took about 250-300 pages to become engaged in the lives of the characters enough to really and truly HAVE to see it through.  Once I was there,  however, it definitely reached that “page-turner” level.  Moreover, it grew in complexity as it progressed  It was as if the seeds had to be planted and given time for the roots to take hold.  Once they were firmly embedded, the story was then able to branch out, creating a complex plot line that fully blooms.

One of my favorite characters is Lily, Inbar’s grandmother.  We meet Lily as a grandmother, whose memory is failing.  And we meet her in glimpses of her memories of her younger self, making the arduous trek to Palestine from Europe just before the war.  We see the hopeful young pioneer with a dream of what Erez Yisrael, the Land of Israel, will be: the homeland of the Jews, the refuge for those with no other place to go.  And we see her own personal struggle with choices she makes for herself, for her country, and for her ideals.

There is a lot to digest here in these pages.  There is a lot of discussion about the land of Israel,  where the Jewish homeland should really be and if what is happening now is actually working.  Is Israel today a failed experiment?  Who has the right to make that decision?  Are there too many people in Israel broken by wars there to make these decisions?

This would be a fantastic book for a book club, were it not for the length of the book.  (This tiny review does not at all do it justice. ) On the other hand, since we’re all still pretty much stuck at home anyway, we have time to read very long books!  Maybe give this one a try.  I”d be curious to hear what others think about it.   We’ll have a mini-book club discussion right here on this blog…

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

While Anna has always been curious about her father’s “errands” for work, she has never questioned them.  On the contrary, she adores accompanying her father and loves that he entrusts her with knowing how to conduct herself with his business associates.  So why is it that she suddenly has become too old to continue to go? Does he not trust her anymore?

On the other hand, life has become quite complicated for her father,  Eddie.  He’d thought he’d figured out a way to save them from the poverty that surrounded New Yorkers in the late 1930’s, but it has become more complicated than he’d predicted.   And no one in the family really understands.  And he must protect them from understanding fully.

This is a hugely ambitious novel of historical fiction takes place just before and during WWII, primarily in New York harbor, focusing on the New York Naval Yard.  Once Anna has grown, she is employed in the building of the warships in the Yard, and becomes entangled, in her own way, in the complicated world her father has left behind.

It is a bit of work, this novel.  This is not an easy read.  There is a lot of technical wording and esoteric jargon — seafaring-related –that admittedly flew right over my head.  Sometimes this is a bit mind-numbing, I have to admit, but after awhile, it sinks in subconsciously.

On the other hand, it is likely that this very detail is what ultimately creates the understanding of the drama that builds up in later half of the book.  It is the excruciating detail that enables us to visualize exactly what is going on when each of the characters encounter their respective dangers and we are right there experiencing those dangers with them.

I also loved these characters.  Anna is a strong, painfully lonely character who is an admirable story heroine.  She fights for what she wants to do, works hard and abides ridicule and interminable prejudice in order to achieve her goals, earning the respect of her male peers by her endurance.  The reader adores cheering her on.

So I suppose I am encouraging patience and adherence for this book – it does pay off in the end for a dramatic and heartfelt story line.  You will have to be willing to learn a lot about ships, sailing, and naval structure, but you will glean a reading experience with tenderness, complex characters, and a build-up to great suspense.

 

 

 

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Welcome to the chaotic world of the newsroom, circa mid-1900’s, as reporters capture the world in all its form and color onto pages of printed black and white, for an English language, international newspaper set in Rome.  These newspeople, while famed to be wildly aggressive and competitively ambitious, of course also have frailties and vulnerabilities that come with being human.  In the vignettes that are strung throughout this work, each of the characters — some reporters, some editors, some business folk — has a back story that is as poignant as the news they work together to bring to the outside world.  The question is, how long will their fledgling paper be able to survive?

This sometimes disturbing, often endearing novel reads almost like a compilation of short stories, as the vignettes almost seem to stand on their own.  On the other hand, they clearly tie together, with characters often making cameo appearances in each others’ stories. The writing style is beautifully unfeigned and gritty.  The characters are, as the title implies, imperfect, and their lives are as well.   Each of their stories is surprising and unpredictable – truly refreshing!  But we come to know them, develop an affection for them, and empathize with them – we can relate to them because they are so human and so real.  By the end, we have a feeling of almost having ourselves sat with them at the broken desks of the newsroom and inhaled, alongside them, the smoky odor of its stained carpet.

I respect the way the author has allowed problems to be left unresolved in many of these vignettes.  For example, there is a 40-something year-old woman who finds truly imperfect love.  We see very clearly that her situation is not the healthiest one.  The lover she has chosen is pretty much a jerk, actually. and our hearts break a little for her.  When a friend tries to help her see how she is being taken advantage of, and she reacts by breaking off the friendship, we lament this as a willful blindness.  But I believe the author’s point here is, do we really know what is best for someone else?  Who are we to judge?

There are many cringeworthy moments in this novel – as there are in life.  And that is the point.  And that is what I love about this book.

Come read, cringe, revel, and just live with these characters.  They will enrich you as genuine people (not fake ones) do.

 

An Undisturbed Peace by Mary Glickman

Abraham has come from England in the early years of American settlement to work with his uncle who has sponsored his transport  He is surprised by the reception he receives:  he is thrown into the barren barracks with the other poor, desperate workers and sent to peddle the wares of the business to surrounding folks, to the best of his ability.  Abe, as he comes to be known, begins his journey as a traveling peddler by landing surreptitiously in the home of a stunning, fiercely independent, Cherokee woman.  She takes him in briefly, cares for him, and although amused by him, does not return his sudden, youthful passion.  As he seeks to reconcile this woman’s past and discover where her heart truly lies, he grows to understand not only himself,  but the complex stratification of the society he sees growing around him.

My first impression of this story was actually incredulity – that a story was being written about a Jewish man falling in love with a Cherokee woman hundreds of years ago in this country.  It just sounded to me an unlikely scenario, given the insular world of the Jews at that time.  As I read further, what I came to appreciate was that it was a clever vehicle through which to describe the era of the Trail of Tears.  This dark period in our American past is when President Andrew Jackson authorized the displacement of thousands of indigenous people from their land and moved them in caravans westward.  This atrocity  was committed under perilous conditions, and thousands of Native Americans perished because of disease, starvation, unwieldy weather conditions and a lack of adequate provisions from the American government.   In telling this story through the eyes of Abe, a Jew and an outsider trying to find where he fit in among the various strata of peoples, there is often a delineation of the pecking order and a redefining of that pecking order as Abe continues to struggle with it.  Where do the slaves of the Cherokees fit in?  Where do the slaves of the Whites fit in?  Where does he fit in relative to them all?  As he is sorting this all out, we see how the groundwork of all of it is being sorted out for future generations – and how some sought to fight against it but, sadly, lost.

So, at first glance, I wasn’t sure about this book, but as I continued through it, it gained more and more value to me and I appreciate it for its very powerful messaging.  I feel it educated me and gave me insight into this bleak blot on our American past.

 

 

 

At Risk by Alice Hoffman

at risk

Polly and Ivan are concerned about their daughter, Amanda.  She’s a gymnast and has an unusual diarrheal illness for the past couple of weeks.  Their pediatrician, who knows them well, can deduce that this is not a good sign and from her low white blood cell count he is extremely worried about the possibility of cancer.  But not in a million years is he expecting that she’d be positive for AIDS, having contracted it from a blood transfusion after a complicated surgery for appendicitis 5 years prior, before blood was screened for the virus.  The paranoia and alienation that the whole family experiences is unexpected and devastating, possibly even worse than the actual diagnosis.

This book, published in 1988, reminds us of the experience that so many went through when HIV first appeared in the 1980’s.  With ads on TV for HIV medications so commonplace and ordinary today, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, there was mass victimization of those who were infected with the virus.  Children infected via intrauterine transmission or from blood transfusions were sometimes not allowed in school because of fears of casual contact transmitting the virus to others, even when there was early evidence that this was not possible.  Millions of infected adults suffered not only from the disease but from the indignities of being ostracized from a society who rejected them because of their disease.  And we have still not cured it.  [The reason for this has probably more to do with financial incentive than the science – it is more beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to produce medications that sustain patients with the disease than to cure it.  Just as with cancer. But I digress…]

As for the book, I found the story compelling, but the writing a bit awkward.  It is told in the present tense, which I often dislike.  More importantly, though, the narration also shifts from one character to another almost as if they are passing a hot potato from one to another, to another.   This shift occurs so frequently and over so many characters that it dilutes and distracts from the actual plot and it is harder to become attached to the truly important players.   We just can’t feel that sorry for everyone.  So while the story is tragic, it does not cut quite as deeply as it might.

Nevertheless, At Risk is a timepiece and tells a part of the story of our bitter history of the HIV epidemic that is important to remember.  We think of HIV as a disease of adults only, but there were thousands of children affected by the disease as well.  And still are today.

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!

 

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ugwu feels quite privileged to have been chosen to work for Master.  Most people in his small village in Nigeria are not given the opportunity to work for someone who provides such fine quarters, good food, and an education as his Master is offering him.  He also has the opportunity to overhear Master’s exuberant  discussions with his regular guests, other professors and intellectuals discussing the political upheaval of their time. And as Ugwu helps Master prepare for the coming of Olanna, Master’s love, Ugwu watches change come not only to their household, but to Nigeria itself.

In some ways this is a monumental saga, portraying one family’s experience of the devastating Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960’s. The author is able to illustrate the complexity of the war – the tribalism, the massacres that preceded the war, the sheer indifference with which the world treated those who were starving to death.   In other ways, there is something missing, something somewhat detached in the writing that keeps the reader just this side of being fully invested in the story.  With the exception of Ugwu, who has a sweetness and a naivety to him, most of the characters have a chilliness that seem to keep not only the reader but even each other at bay.

This is not an easy book to read but I’m so glad I did.  I think you will be too.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

For anyone who has ever loved rock music, in all its crazy glory, I give you Daisy Jones and the Six. Written, cleverly, like a Rolling Stone interview, the story chronicles the accidental marriage of Daisy Jones, a gorgeous, lonely, and gifted child of LA in the 60’s with the band, The Six, originally from the East Coast and starting to hit it big.  The personalities, the alliances, the drugs, the romance, the challenges and the drama – it’s all there in an exquisitely crafted story of their rise to fame, fortune and ultimately the realization of some painful truths.

This is just an incredibly fun book to read.  The characters are wonderfully portrayed, with such vulnerability and warmth that you fall in love with them every bit as much as they are falling in love with each other.  The band feels so real.  You almost remember the songs they sing, as if they are hidden somewhere in your brain and not something you’re reading for the first time.  And the ego clashes are reminiscent of every band that Rolling Stone has probably ever interviewed, but are still somehow interesting because we are meeting them behind stage, unplugged, often unmoored and raw.

The idea of writing this story as an interview is brilliant.  My first inclination toward it was, honestly, reluctant.  I thought it might actually get old quick.  But it works!  it actually feels so honest and somehow more powerful, with the narrative coming from each of the characters themselves.  It is quite an unusual technique.

You will laugh, you might cry – but you will absolutely love Daisy Jones and the Six!

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.