Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Amazon.com: Deacon King Kong: A Novel: 9780735216723: McBride, James: Books

What could possibly possess that bumbling, mumbling, stumbling old man, Sportcoat — everyone is thinking — to walk to the middle of the crowded flagpole square, here in Brooklyn in 1969, and shoot Deems Clemens in broad daylight? Everyone knows that Deems has grown up to be the lead drug dealer in the neighborhood, in spite of their communal dream that he’d use his brilliant baseball arm to pitch his way out of there. Now they all have to worry about protecting Sportcoat, even if he himself doesn’t seem to even remember having done the deed and isn’t being at all cooperative about laying low. How will he manage to evade revenge, now that this seems to have triggered a much more magnified response among the parties involved. What could Sportcoat have been thinking?

As Sportcoat meanders through the buildings of the Cause Houses, he brings us with him on a journey that feels random but is, in fact, a meticulously and methodically crafted tale. His warm and breezy manner is deceptive, and unless you’re paying close attention to his intoxicated rambling, you might miss his astute observations and profound wisdom. Other characters, too, have surprising depth and heart and casually drop the clues that create the cleverly drawn story that entangles them all. The “Elephant,” or Tommy Elefante, the son who inherits his father’s, um… let’s say, “import/export” business in the neighborhood, is another such player. As we peer into his heart, we know he’s committed some foul deeds, but he’s also been consistent and honest, which, in his business – and really in any business – counts for a lot. We feel their internal struggles, and we are privy to the reconciliation with their pasts.

There is so much that is subtly brilliant about this novel, it, no doubt, deserves to be read more than once. McBride’s writing enables us to easily fall in love with his characters, their wonderful names, their gritty dialogue, and their wildly human vulnerabilities. We feel trapped with them, inside their lanes, trying desperately to break out of the stereotypical cards that are dealt them. Each of them is in his or her segment of the same neighborhood, managing the social and economic forces that are trying to pit neighbor against neighbor in Brooklyn, 1969. Because of the poignant writing, we are right there with them, feeling their pain, laughing along with their victories.

This novel is utterly beautiful, in all its gritty splendor. An absolute MUST-READ!

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

 

Amazon.com: The Book of Longings: A Novel: 9780525429760: Kidd, Sue Monk:  Books

Ana is not the typical Jewish girl of her era, the first century, just outside ancient Jerusalem, under Roman rule. She is acutely aware of her powerlessness, even while she is better off than many, with her father being first scribe to the Tetrarch. No, she is still female and still feels the sting of having little agency over her future. While others her age appear to anticipate with wonder their upcoming matches and engagements, she is filled with dread. This is not the life she seeks. Ana is a writer of stories, hungrily stealing away with any papyrus and ink she might snatch from her father’s cache. She documents the pain and the courage that she witnesses in the women around her. She cannot imagine herself with any man – that is, until she stumbles upon the man called Jesus…

This fascinating novel of historical fiction imagines Jesus not as a celibate ascetic, but rather more as a man. He is pious and righteous and utterly generous and he promotes kindness, forgiveness, love and all of the doctrines for which he is known and beloved. But he is also human, with human instincts and human desires.

More importantly, the focus of the novel is not directed toward Jesus, but rather on Ana. The message here, I believe, is that we are ALWAYS hearing about the men. We always hear about how righteous they are and how they opine. Very few women are highlighted in the Bible, for example, and if they are, it is often to let us know whom they have “begotten,” or worse, if they have not been able to “beget.” There is quite a lot of violence toward these women, and there is quite a lot of hushing and rejection of them as well. Ana makes it her business to tell their stories, the stories of her women, not only of the Bible, but also of her peers and her family. She sees it as her mission to ensure that they are not forgotten, as women often are.

The characters depicted here are lifelike and enduring in our minds. We are drawn to Yaltha, Ana’s aunt, for example, because of her untiring loyalty and rebellious spirit. We also have deep sympathy for her because, bit by bit, her dark and tragic history is revealed to us. She has been so mistreated but yet she remains steadfast in her devotion to Ana. We cannot help loving her for this.

This is a beautiful work of imagination and imagery that I believe will stay at least with me for a long time. I’d very much love to hear what others think of it as well!

China Boy by Gus Lee

Amazon.com: China Boy: 9780452271586: Lee, Gus: Books

Kai has had a tender beginning, with a loving mother who has nurtured him, even favoring him as the “Only Son” among his sisters.  Now, however, he finds himself at a much harsher juncture, being the tiny, nearsighted, vulnerable target of all the neighborhood bullies.  Caught between his family tradition and his worldly circumstance, Kai struggles to overcome his daily obstacles, utilizing strength he never knew he had.

On its face, this is a potentially beautiful story, but I felt it was disappointingly told.  While Chinese history and culture from the 1940’s was colorfully embroidered into Kai’s family/back story, this background encompasses over half of the book.  Admittedly, some of it was interesting and deepened the context, but there is both redundancy and repetitiveness throughout.  Further,  while we endure every gory detail of each of Kai’s beatings, there is only minimal detail about his relationships with his sisters.  Kai’s sister, Jane, for example, is a strong, willful character who stands up to her stepmother.  I would have loved to have heard more about her and her relationship with Kai.  She is, unfortunately though, kept at bay.  Likewise, we know even less about his 2 older sisters.  

Similarly, once we do (finally) get to the plot, there is not much there that we cannot predict.  While Kai is a very endearing character, and we do root for him, we know where the story will take us before we get to the ending.  No surprises, no twists.  Nothing.

There is so much potential in the idea of this story.  Was it the writing?  The editing?  Not sure, but at least in my opinion, someone failed.  

 

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel: Allende, Isabel, Caistor, Nick,  Hopkinson, Amanda: 9781984820150: Amazon.com: Books

Victor Dalmau has found himself rooted, with only a few years of medical training, in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, repairing the wounds of the Republicans fighting the Fascists who are seeking to rule Spain.  While he is useless with a gun —  quite unlike his brother Guillem, the consummate warrior — he finds purpose in healing those who are, and he supports them in their calling.  Little does he know how deeply he would continue to feel the pain of injustice and persecution and how this early mission would direct the trajectory of his life and that of his family. 

This is a beautifully written novel, based on the true story of one survivor of the Spanish Civil War.  After this war,  thousands fled first to France, were placed in dreadful concentration camps, and two thousand fortunate souls were rescued by the poet Neruda on a ship to Chile called the Winnipeg.  In Chile, they were welcomed and given refuge and opportunity and allowed to flourish until there was political unrest there as well.  Our hero, Victor, embodies the strong, immigrant character: hardworking, valuing family above all else, and devoted to the preservation of humanity and justice.    

I am so thankful to have read this novel.  In my ignorance of history, I have never known much about this tragic era in our world’s history.   Learning it through the eyes of these gorgeous characters was, in my view, the best way to attempt to correct this, because the facts are interwoven with deep emotion, and this is how they are best etched into our memories.  And while this is not necessarily an absolute/comprehensive and final look, it is certainly a great start to learning about this dark moment in Spain, France and South America.  

And even while enlightening us about the historical period, the author does not neglect to interweave a complex plot, with suspense, subplots, and even romance that bear surprise twists.  She keeps us intrigued with each step of Victor’s harrowing journey.  

This is an important read for those who are are unaware of this period of history – and even for those who aren’t.  And while I don’t like to overload the “MUST READ’s,” this has to be placed there – sorry!

 

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams

Amazon.com: Our Woman in Moscow: A Novel (9780063090231): Williams,  Beatriz: Books

Ruth has always been more like an older sister than a twin to Iris, guarding her and shielding her to the extent that she could, especially after losing both their parents. When in Rome at the start of WWII, Ruth is fully aware that Iris is falling for this seemingly noble Sasha Digby, but she still believes it safest for Iris to leave when the Americans are evacuated. When Iris defies Ruth, she incises a rift between the sisters that cuts deep and festers for years. So why is it Ruth whom Iris calls upon when she is suddenly lost in the abyss of Communist post-WWII Russia? Will Ruth be able to save her sister this time?

Beatriz Williams never, ever disappoints. Using her chatty, familiar, and utterly engaging storytelling style she has created a truly suspenseful historical fiction masterpiece in Our Woman of Moscow. The secrecy and counterintelligence of the post-WWII era is a centerpiece of the novel and sadly, feels eerily relevant today, as we are still at war, albeit virtually, with suppressive, paranoid Communist regimes.

What I love so much about Williams’ books is that her female characters are strong women of substance and dominate the plots. And while there are a few good men, so to speak, there are many who are weak and vulnerable. Most importantly, here in particular, the men– and even some women– are duped primarily because of their preconceived notions about women. This is the sweetest part.

Another MUST READ by Beatriz Williams!

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett: A Novel: Lyons, Annie:  9780063026063: Amazon.com: Books

Eudora Honeysett is 85 years old and she is done. She is still of sound mind and, while she may have slowed down a bit, she still swims her daily laps at the community pool and she can still care for herself, by herself, thank you very much. She has seen how death can be an ugly, drawn-out affair, having witnessed her own mother’s experience- and that is not for her. So Eudora makes arrangements for her own plan of action. And she will not let anything deter her, not even her brand new and surprising friends, such as they are – the boisterous young neighbor called Rose, and the awkwardly emotional gentleman, Stanley.

This delightful novel is very much A Man Called Ove meets Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Eudora is a woman who’s had it tough, who has sacrificed much for others over the years, and at her older age of 85 is finally, if awkwardly, speaking up for herself. Much of her straightforwardness is cringeworthy, but, at the same time, it is so refreshingly stunning and true. And while one might expect her to repel others with her manner of speaking, she actually manages to endear them to her. (Could it be that our world is seeking this more genuine form of communication? That we are all just looking for honesty and kindness, rather than flattery or banality?)

The author has created utterly beautiful characters. Rose, Eudora’s 10-year old neighbor and adopted “BFF,” illuminates the pages of this novel. Her outrageously clashing fashion statements are clearly imprinted in the reader’s mind, and we cannot help laughing along as Rose enriches Eudora’s wardrobe (as well as her life) with color. As they are both unique in their own ways, they can appreciate each other for this – and accept each other as they are. And the relationship between them is tender and lovely and loving.

And, again, we meet another death doula! (I had never heard of this career path before the Picoult novel, and now here is the second novel with a death doula.) Once again, there is frank discussion about death and that one can choose to die with dignity and love and honesty instead of with machines and tubes and disconnection. So often, we are reluctant to face our mortality and so we do not plan for it. We deny the possibility, so we avoid discussing what we want. We do not complete the forms, we do not discuss our wishes. And then when it comes down to it, we end up where we may not want to be. The death doula can be the escort through this process of confronting those difficult conversations, those difficult moments, and to ease that time, for whenever it might arrive. For it will, of course, at some point, for us all.

This is a wonderful novel – on so many levels. Give yourself this gift – you will not be sorry!

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 9780140186390 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Cyrus Trask is a man who has returned from his brief stint in the army with a wooden leg and an enormously embellished story about his military experience. It is this military persona who has raised his two sons, Adam and Charles, and his driving pressure which divides them as well. For while Charles pines for the approval of his father, Adam shirks away from it. And like many sibling rivalries, it is just too onerous to overcome. Their journeys are both tortured and enriched by the people they meet and we follow Adam in particular as he winds his way across the country to the Salinas Valley, where he ultimately settles and raises his own two sons.

I have been maintaining this blog for over 5 years and I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by a novel as I feel by this one. There is so much more than I could ever possibly understand in this story, so much significance and reference in this allegory that I can not even begin to appreciate the depth of it.

The underlying theme, to me, seems to be the struggle over good and evil impulses that exists in all of us. Steinbeck depicts some of the characters as being born to be destined to be purely one or the other, almost as if they do not have the choice over their path. Cathy, for example, is described as someone who is missing something essential, and we come to expect nothing but evil from her all throughout. Yet, there is discussion amongst three of the characters in the story about the biblical story of Cain and Abel about the possibility of having choice over what path a person chooses to follow – good or evil. Ironically, one of the participants is Adam, whose brother has assaulted him quite violently in an attempt on his life.

The unsung hero of this book is certainly Lee, who cares for Adam and his two sons. Because he is of Chinese descent, he experiences constant racism and is dismissed as being less-than, even when, in truth, he is far more intelligent and well-educated than most of the men around him. Yet he humbles himself to those around him and reveals to them neither his resentment nor his superior intellect, unless he is shown the respect he merits. Only then does he reveal his true self or his boundless wisdom.

If you never read this classic in high school or college, as I hadn’t, I would encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this extraordinary novel. This is absolutely a MUST READ!

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

The Last Story of Mina Lee: A Novel: Kim, Nancy Jooyoun: 9780778310174:  Amazon.com: Books

It’s been two weeks since Margot has heard from her mother, Mina. She’s not answered her phone, nor has she called. And while they are not close, they are really each other’s only family.   So Margot now finds herself driving down from Seattle to Los Angeles, with her best friend, Miguel, to investigate. What she finds there leads her on a search for answers – answers about her mother’s fate, about her mother’s past, and about her own origins.

This is a book that I wanted to love. Mina was an immigrant of Korean origin who came to this country seeking what so many come to the US seeking – refuge from war, refuge from a painful, dangerous past, seeking opportunity. And like many, what she finds is obstacles. Barriers because of language, culture, and xenophobia. There is a universality to this story that I know is important to readers in this moment – important for us to understand the immigrant experience, to develop an empathy toward it, and to fully comprehend the urgency to open doors for immigrants in our country.

The story does accomplish this goal. However, it is so bleak and so unrelentingly tragic, that the reader develops almost a compassion fatigue while reading it. Mina’s life is so full of horror that it is almost unimaginable. The details that are leaked, almost like tears leaking from the eyes of someone afraid to show emotion, are devastatingly heartbreaking.  Mina is truly the hero of the story, as Margot comes to realize, but we are almost too exhausted to fully appreciate her.

There was also much in the way of repetition. Rather than introducing additional vignettes about the life of either Mina or Margot, or, more importantly, of their memories together while Margot was growing up, the author chose to recount the same scenes again and again from different perspectives. This sometimes added some depth, but occasionally grew old, and it would have added more, I believe, to create additional memories, shared times between mother and daughter, to give further insight into their complicated relationship. Margot was searching for more – and so was I as the reader.

I think this is an important story to tell. I wish I’d loved the telling of it more.

 

 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - By Lisa Wingate (Hardcover) : Target

Avery Stafford is finding her place, as she’s come back to the south to possibly carry on the family’s senatorial dynasty. When she visits a nursing home during a publicity event, she stumbles upon a woman she fears may hold a family secret that may threaten all that she and her family have worked for.

Then flash backward and we meet Rill Foss, a precocious 12 year old living with her poor but happy family in their river shanty. Rill is thrust suddenly into being responsible for her 4 younger siblings, for keeping them together and safe, and we watch as she is torn apart as adults attempt to destroy the family she fights to save.

As these two stories unfold side by side, we are breathless to know how they intersect.

This was an excruciating story to read at times, but at the same time, it was one that I could not put down. And while Rill herself is not an actual person, her story is based on historical events and children’s experiences that have been documented from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. That is, a woman named Georgia Tann, ran an adoption center in Memphis that actually bought and sold children as if they were property. Some of these children were actual orphans, but many were stolen from their homes, kidnapped while walking home from school, or worse. Some were placed in high profile homes, such as in homes of celebrities and politicians, but many were mistreated and hundreds are thought to have actually died under her care. She apparently made thousands of dollars from this business and had politicians and law enforcement in her pockets and avoided any legal confrontation to her dying day. Georgia Tann is the one non-fictional character in this book.

The writing in this book is gripping, particularly Rill’s story. On the other hand, it at times can be so utterly painful that some is extremely hard to read. It’s that same feeling one gets seeing a terrible car accident – can’t look but can’t look away. I personally have the hardest time hearing/reading about abuse of children and tend to avoid books like this. I have to admit, though, that the author handled it well. Just as it reaches a moment of peak discomfort, the story switches to Avery’s story line to lighten the mood and give the reader a chance to breathe. This is the only way I was able to get through, I think.

And in Rill, the author has created an extraordinary character. Though young, she is wise, cautious, kind, and she fights for her family with a passion that brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. There is no way not to love and empathize with this character.

This is an extraordinary tale, told well. Isn’t that all we want in a book???

 

 

 

 

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Lakshmi has been cultivating her business for the past 10 years, painting henna designs onto strategic body parts of the socialites of Jaipur, and doling out her herbal remedies on the side. Now if she could only seal the deal on her newest and most ambitious venture, she’d be able to finalize the details on the house that has come to symbolize her dream of full independence. But will the advent of a surprise family member put a thorn in her meticulously laid plan? How will she negotiate what she now cannot fully control?

This artistically drawn narrative embraces you from page one and holds you in its tender wrap until the very end. The writing is lyrical and poignant and all the stark colors and radiant spice of India spill out of its pages to give you the full sensory experience. At the same time, we are also privy to Lakshmi’s emotional turmoil as well, feeling connected to her experiences by this same sensorial thread. Her struggles become ours and her victories ours as well.

I do wonder why the author chose to restrict the narrating voice to only Laskshmi’s. In some ways it gives some mystery to her sister, Radha’s character, but I wonder if it might have broadened the perspective to tell the story from her sister’s side as well. Her sister was an intriguing character with a tragic past who we know from hearing her story from Lakshmi’s point of view. It might have added that much more depth to the story to give her more of a voice.

At the same time, I loved the characters. They were full of lovely and sage Indian adages, which I loved, and they exhibited such warmth and humanity. One of my favorites was Lakshmi’s little assistant, Malik. His impish but extraordinarily wise tendencies and steadfast loyalty were heartwarming, and Lakshmi warmed to becoming almost a maternal figure to him as the story progressed. Their relationship was subtly and tenderly portrayed.

There was so much to love about this book – I’d love to hear from you what you loved. Please let me know when you’ve given yourself the gift of reading The Henna Artist! It is, I would say, a MUST READ as well!