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!

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Mrs. Richardson thought she’d planned her life out quite well.  She had a beautiful home, a devoted husband, four healthy, intelligent teenage children and even a career, benign as it was.  And in Shaker Heights, a planned community just outside of Cleveland, that is what was expected of a well-to-do, educated woman of her stature. Sure, she’d had her moments of passion – she’d grown up in the 60’s after all –  but there was a reason why rules and laws existed.  Orderliness was necessary,  correct.  (Why couldn’t her youngest daughter, Izzy, appreciate that?  Was that so difficult?) And when Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl came to live in the apartment that Mrs. Richardson rented out, it was only the right thing to do, to support the arts in her own way, by renting to them.  However, as the two very different families became intertwined, lines became blurred and rules became fuzzy.  At least in the eyes of Elena Richardson.  Not so, to Izzy.

Thanks to my book club for encouraging me to read this one!  I was reluctant to try another Celeste Ng novel after the relentlessly depressing Everything I Never Told You.  This one, however, was entirely different.  It was so beautifully crafted, with the care and devotion and an eye to her art, much like that of Mia’s.  There are wonderful characters, who are messy and quite real, contrary to Mrs. Richardson’s ideal.  Some who seem superficial, but emerge with more depth, and vice versa, much like people in our real lives.  But the plot is what is most gorgeous, with its many sub-plots, taking the story in directions that are unforeseen, often tender, occasionally cringe-worthy, but always engrossing.  I could not put this book down!

And it is deeply meaningful. I will tread carefully because I do not want to spoil for anyone, but I believe the way that both white privilege and class privilege is illuminated is so carefully and poignantly done that it is digestible and accessible to the reader.  There is history and context and explanation, but there is also the story and what actually happens.  So we understand why, but we still understand that it is wrong.  This gives such power to the message.

I loved this book and believe that many of you will also.  This is a MUST READ, for sure!

 

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Frances was sick and tired…  not just sick with the cold that had lingered for the past many weeks, but really feeling as if life had caught up with her.  With her career suddenly seeming to be turning south and her love life at a mortifying halt, a 10-day “cleanse” at the Tranquillum House seems to be just what she needs to repair.  When she meets Masha, the stunning and passionate guru whose mission is to guide each of the nine newcomers to Tranquillum House through their individual transformations, Frances is a bit wary – but she’s trying her best to be open-minded.  Little does she – or any of them – know how they will, in spite of themselves, be completely transformed ultimately, but not at all in the way that they think.

Some books are plot-driven and some are character-driven.  This book is both.  There are endearing and tragic characters whose layers are gradually peeled off one by one as the story is told via rotating narrative perspectives.  Each has their vulnerability that is seen as something that might be remedied by a diet change, or with some counseling or some meditation. (Who can’t relate to that?)   But there is also a wild plot that is imaginative and suspenseful and runs beyond where at least I expected it to go.  And by the time it is completed, you feel that the nine are no longer strangers, but rather your dear friends.

Better read it before the movie comes out – it’s bound to be a movie!

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!

 

 

 

 

My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody

my-name-is-mahtob

Many years ago, I watched a movie called Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field.  Have you seen it?

It was a true story about an American woman married to an Iranian man and together they had a 5 year old daughter named Mahtob.  They lived in Michigan and were happily married, until he suggested they take a 2-week vacation to visit his relatives in Iran.  This was just after the Iranian revolution during which the Ayatolah Khomeini overthrew the Shah.  Once they were in Iran, it became clear that Sayyed, the father, had no intention of taking his family back to America.  He embraced the law of the land, which claimed that women and children were the property of the man of the family, and he held them hostage, watching their every move and threatening them with their lives if they disobeyed him.  They lived like this for almost 18 months, until Betty, Mahtob’s mother, was able to earn his trust enough to be allowed to go shopping in the market and make secret contact with an underground network of people who were able to help her and Mahtob finally and miraculously escape.

I remember having had nightmares about this movie for months after seeing it.  And now here is the epilogue…

This is the story from Mahtob, the daughter, herself.  She recounts her story, as the daughter of these two very different parents.  She shares her early memories of America, in a very loving home, with tender memories of her father at the start.  She recalls a subtle shift in his attitude toward his culture and religion just before their leaving for Iran.  But the change in his attitude was like a tidal wave once they landed in Iran, and the loving father that she knew essentially disappeared, replaced by a monster, in her eyes – one who beat up her beloved mother, who threatened her mother, and who separated Mahtob from her mother for days at a time.  And that’s when she learned to hate.

What I did not realized was that the story did not end with their escape from Iran.  This mother and child had to endure years of terror, fearing a kidnapping by her father – or worse! – their whole lives.  And the impact spread to everyone around them.

Betty Mahmoody coped by using their experience  to advocate for others in this situation.  She fought for federal laws that protected children against international parental kidnapping, which President Clinton passed.  And she travelled around the country and around the world, personally supporting  many families who were in the same situation that she had been in.

This is a very, very hard book to read emotionally but it is an important one, I believe.  It serves as a portrait of the convergence of mental illness and religious fanaticism, which is a  terrifying combination.

It  brought it all back for me, but it also brought closure as well.  It seemed to have done so for Mahtob herself.

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!

 

Chiefs by Stuart Woods

chiefs

In looking for something different to read, I stumbled upon this thriller from the 1980’s, which was so much more substantive and nuanced than I ever imagined.

It begins in 1919, when Will Henry Lee is appointed the Chief of Police in the tiny town of  Delano, Georgia.  Things are fairly quiet until the first body turns up – that of a young boy, naked, with suspicious marks on him.  This case is niggling at him but life goes on and he is forced to move on with the times.  As the years pass, the case becomes buried deeper and deeper in layers of race, power, politics, and in simple human nature and the ultimate resolution is a shock to everyone.

This story is so carefully delivered, over time, even over generations, and the reader’s patience is rewarded with an exquisitely intricate plot.  There is a horrifying overlay of the deep south’s history of racial bias which, sadly, is quite poignant and relatable today.  So too, are the political power plays, the small town alliances, and injustices.  Timeless, apparently.

The writing, too, is sharp and clear, with poignant dialogue and a few great scenes.  My particular favorite scene is one in which the wife of Billy, Will Henry’s son, buys a shotgun and shows what a woman can do all by herself to protect herself from the nasty Klansmen who are out to get her and her husband.  I won’t give it all away, but I’d say that scene alone is worth reading the book for!

This book is a definite page-turner and one that will stay with me for awhile.  I’m not sure it’s a “must read” but it’s close!