Groundskeeping by Lee Cole

Owen is fairly certain that had he known that Alma was the new hot shot literary scholar when he first met her, he would never have flirted with her in the first place. He would never have had the courage. But now that they’ve established a rapport, well, he’s now somewhat smitten. The question is, what does she, with her Ivy League degree, her fellowship, and her liberal, wealthy family, see in him? As he struggles to regain his footing after years of poor decisions and strained family relationships, Owen has to determine if Alma is helping him get himself together – or hindering him.

This is a contemplative and brooding novel that I felt came close to being excellent but just missed the mark, at least for me.  I felt that Owen’s rage that simmered throughout was a palpable and writhing presence. Sometimes it was expressed so eloquently, his resentment toward his Southern, Trump-supporting, Evangelical Christian parents and their blind following of the Republican, racist, party line. Similarly, the all-too-common, awkward, polarized, political conversation that folks are having around this country was expressed beautifully between Owen and one of his coworkers.  But there were missed opportunities too. While he did have an argument with his uncle over his uncle’s MAGA sticker in his window, it was brief and superficial. We never really learn more about his uncle’s online life where he spends all of his time gaming, and we never learn what happens to him at the end of the story, when he is likely to be left alone. The uncle seems to just vanish.

I will say that I loved the character of Owen’s grandfather. While he did maintain his own beliefs, which were based in his religion and his culture, he did not allow this to taint his relationship with Owen. He was open to letting his grandson live with him, he was tolerant of Owen’s relationship with someone who was quite different from them, and he overlooked Owen’s faults, even when they trespassed over the rules of his own home. He was exceedingly forgiving and loving in his own way. He demonstrated that while one may not agree with someone’s politics, one may still be able to have a beautiful relationship with that individual. And in this moment, that is a huge concept to acknowledge. 

I believe there is a lot here, about the art and strain of writing, about class structure, about political tension, and about the ramifications of the 2016 election on the South. But I wish it had been developed just a bit further, with a bit more action, and a bit more completion. Still, a worthwhile read.

 

 

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…!

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

In February of 2020, Seymour is on a mission to fight climate change with his razor focus, his headphones, and a backpack of explosives. Upstairs in the library where Seymour is attempting his strike, Zeno is guiding a pack of 5 excited children as they rehearse a play – their version of an ancient Greek story. In the 1400’s, there are 2 young people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople, Anna and Omeir, each dealing with their own version of trauma and poverty. And way in the future, there is a young girl named Konstance who is traveling on a mission to an exoplanet where she’ll be able to survive and restart a new generation of human life. Each of these threads are linked by the tale of the Cloud Cuckoo Land, an ancient, absurd tale carried from antiquity and retold through the ages, to entertain, to sustain, and to give hope.

This is an outrageously imaginative novel that may take a bit of time to get into, but then grips and holds you until the very last page. I am just astounded at how one person can weave together such seemingly disparate tales into one large picture that ultimately ties so tightly together. Writing like this is a gift. Moreover, each tale, in and of itself, is tender and gripping – each character, vulnerable and complex. We love Anna for her deep struggle to care for her ill sister, Maria. And we love Omeir for his tenderness toward his animals. We even understand Seymour’s frustration and anger as he acts out of desperation in a way he sees as his only choice. The author endows every character with so much humanity that we are glued to them, their actions, their struggles.

And the larger message here, that books and learning can bring joy – is the most beautiful. In this moment, when extremists are threatening to burn books, to limit the choices of literature that others read or access, we are reminded about what folks throughout history have lived through just to save our stories. So many have fought to save books, even those that might seem trivial or silly, because books bring light and hope and knowledge to those who take advantage and open their hearts to them.

Banning books is never the answer.

This book may not be for everyone – but if you open your imagination – it just might be for you!

 

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.

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!

 

 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Cussie Mary is never more satisfied than when she is able to carry a new bit of reading material to a beloved patron, whether it be a young, aspiring forester or an elderly, near-blind seamstress. She loves her mission as “Book Woman”, working as a Pack Horse Librarian here in Kentucky, and does not wish for any other role in what others might perceive as a lonely life. Pa, though, has a different idea. He seems hell-bent on finding her a husband, and continues to light the courting candle, much to her dismay. What ensues opens up her very narrow world to unimaginable possibilities, both dangerous and hopeful.

I adore how literature can shine a spotlight onto pivotal moments and impactful individuals in our history, instructing us without ever having us enter a classroom. In this dramatic read, we learn about the US initiative to encourage literacy in the remotest parts of Kentucky, bringing books to those who would otherwise never have had access. These brave women (and some men) of the Pack Horse Librarians walked or rode out on their own mules or horses for miles each day, delivering donated books, magazines, and newspapers to folks living in the rough, mountainous terrain of Appalachia. Children and adults who barely had enough to eat gained sustenance on what they learned from this program, and these women touched the everyday lives of their patrons in so many ways.

We also learn here of the Blue families of Kentucky as well. These families have a rare blood disorder called methemoglobinemia, which gives the skin a blue appearance. Cussie Mary is so afflicted and this sets her apart. She is shunned by white and black folks alike, many afraid to even touch her for fear of catching it (it’s not contagious), thinking it something from “the devil” or worse. She is treated with scorn and derision by so many. Only those able to see through color see her for the kind, caring person she is. How universal is this concept, eh?

There are many tender moments here, woven through the story, but I believe what is missing here is humor. While many books deal with significant issues and enlighten us about historical moments of note, there are, intertwined in them, moments of levity to alleviate the tension. I felt there were not enough of those here. There is an almost relentless tone of tension here that is somewhat wearing. A perfect novel has a bit more balance, in my opinion.

This is still an important story to share and I believe a worthwhile read. Just prepare to be anxious – you can’t avoid it here!

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Nora cannot reconcile the guilt she feels that while she was relaxing over a celebratory glass of champagne with her roommate, her father was, at that very moment, tossed into the air by an as yet unidentified driver and killed. Nor could she believe, even through her profound grief, any possibility that this was a random accident. All she had to do was convince others to see things from her point of view as well. Would she be able to do this, without any witnesses, without anyone coming forward in her favor? Especially when even her family was willing to accept the party line…?

This is an excruciatingly timely story, as it addresses the deep-seated fear and resentment that so many white folks have toward any immigrant that has achieved any modicum of success. This “replacement” conspiracy theory once again rears its hideous head here.  Nora, a smart, talented, but dark-skinned, Muslim girl has been left out and “othered” most of her life, growing up in their desert town near Joshua Tree. Similarly, she’s observed her father, a hard-working immigrant from Casablanca, survive being targeted by racial incidents as well. While Nora has found solace in her music, she’s continued to experience micro-aggressions repeatedly and continues to struggle with navigating her way through. 

The author makes excellent use of a rotating narration, imbuing a distinctive and familiar voice to each character.  It feels as if we are sitting with the characters, hearing their side of the story as it is told perhaps in an interrogation room to the investigating officer.  We come to know each character deeply, understand their passions, and feel their pain. It works.

One character that is particularly endearing is Efrain, the singular witness. I will not give away details about him or his perspective, but he is portrayed beautifully and his struggle over coming forward is both understandable and tragic.

This is an engaging story with a powerful message – a worthy read! 

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This epic tale begins with the birth of Effia, born during a fire that devastated her father’s crops, a harbinger of the impact that fire would have on generations to come. And as we learn about the generations that follow, we also learn about the history of the warring tribes that inhabit the Gold Coast of Africa as well as the movement of enslaved Black men and women to America and their experience through generations there.

This is another work of genius by Gyasi. Through many endearing characters and colorful and impassioned scenes, we learn about the history of the peoples of current day Ghana as well as how so many came to be enslaved in America. We learn, too, about their experience of continued oppression beyond the years of slavery in the US as well. The stories are so tactile and sharply painted, the reader cannot help but feel a connection to the many characters, as if we are traveling along the family’s lineage ourselves, through each generation.

And Gyasi omits nothing. She includes the dark reality for those who migrated north seeking relief from enslavement only to find continued prejudice and rejection in different forms. She includes the ugly truth about our history of replacing slavery with mass incarceration. She writes about our American reality now and how, in spite of some change and advancement, divides persist.

It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of the not-so-beautiful history of Ghana and the history of our country. Yes, another MUST-READ.

 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

 

Lila (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Kindle edition by Robinson, Marilynne.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Lila is still trying to reconcile that she is here, now, in Gilead, married to the “old man,” John Ames, the respected preacher of this tiny village, especially given her meandering, even sordid past. If he knew the details, would he have so quickly and without judgement have been willing to baptize her? Would he still love her?  Is she willing to risk telling him her secrets? Lila continues to hold herself close, even as she gradually learns about love and trust from the very gentle and kind John Ames.

This is a beautiful prequel to Gilead, very gently revealing the traumatic story of Lila’s youth. We gain insight into her quiet and independent nature, reading about the tender but precarious relationship she had with her beloved Doll, the woman who snatched her away from her house of origin and who raised her and protected her as a mother lioness would protect her young.  We also are with Lila as she struggles to reconcile the ironies of organized religious precepts with the practical realities of the everyman’s day-to-day life.

Once again, Robinson’s writing is exquisite. She is able to quietly release the painful details of Lila’s life just as one might accidentally drop a pearl every now and then from a fine string. She creates images and characters that are imprinted in Lila’s mind, and so too, are imprinted in ours. We feel her loneliness and we are empathetic when Lila can only feel mean, because we are entirely with her in her lived experience. And the intermixing of philosophy and theology and storytelling is so subtle that we are contemplating it without even being aware.

If you’ve read Gilead, you must read Lila – it will only enhance your understanding of the story and of yourself.