Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less has found an escape route. With the approach of his ex-lover’s wedding, which he cannot bear to attend, he has manufactured a series of commitments — lectures to be given, classes to be taught, awards ceremonies to attend – and all abroad, so that he cannot possibly be present to witness the upcoming nuptials. As he embarks upon his journey and his approaching 50th birthday, he reflects upon his life and what he has to look forward to. Throughout his journey, it seems that as his suitcase appears to become emptier,  his heart becomes fuller.

On the surface, the story of Arthur Less can feel somewhat self-indulgent. He is smoldering over his life, having lived many years in the shadow of a genius. He feels he’s achieved merely mediocrity at best, as an author, as a lover, perhaps even as a human in general. He laments his past works, such as they are, as well as his current attempts at writing and at love. He has imposter syndrome to the nth degree. Sadly, he neglects to see the love that he inspires around him. He has difficulty taking in the admiration of his students, his audiences, and his friends. Only we, the readers, see it.

Can’t we all relate to this? Just as Arthur travels around the world getting swept up in misadventure and blaming himself, many of us travel through life focusing on what we’ve done wrong and where we have erred rather than on what we should be grateful for. I know I often fall into the trap of being my own worst critic and blind to my own blessings. I often feel “less.”

I am not sure I understand how this was a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it certainly does have meaning beyond the surface and is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

I would be so interested to hear what others think about this one! Please comment!

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Emma always felt that she never measured up to her older sister, Maria, especially in the eyes of their parents. While Maria loved to read and sought out hours in the family bookstore, Emma wanted only to travel and dreamed of being as far away from their home as possible. As the two grow up and wend their way through high school, Emma finds love in an unexpected situation and it sparks her journey through adventure and heartbreak and renewal.

I have found Jenkins Reid’s other writing to be so full of delightful surprises, twists and creative prose –which was why I was so profoundly disappointed by this one. It was utterly devoid of all of these attributes. The plot was plainly predictable, the characters bland, and the dialogue repetitive and banal. Why did I finish it? Because I kept believing that something unexpected would certainly happen – that something would redeem the plot. But no, no such luck.

Oh, well.

On to the next book!

 

 

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. 

 

Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

On their route back to their hotel after a Sunday service at the African Free Church in Charleston, SC in the year 1859, Mother, Mary and Georgy Woolsey come upon a wagon transporting children – babies – to be sold at auction that afternoon. Horrified, they stay to observe what they’d never seen in their home town of New York City, and although they could not mitigate the cruelty of that moment, Mother slips her business card to their mother, hoping to give her a place of future refuge, a focus for hope. Georgy takes this a step further, by signing up to train and work as a nurse, bravely and passionately caring for soldiers who fight for the freedom of these enslaved individuals. Georgy’s story ultimately intertwines with the stories of both Jemma, an enslaved young woman on the Peeler Plantation in Maryland, and Anne-May, the young plantation owner.  As their stories unfold, so do those of the battles of the Civil War, the atrocities of slavery, the profiteering of spies, and the ultimate path to justice and freedom. 

This is an intricately woven, thoroughly researched, historical fiction novel based on the actual, courageous lives of the Woolsey women of Connecticut and New York City.  Georgy’s character is real, and while some of her exploits are fiction, much of what is written is based upon her actual life experience.  She is a strong-willed and fiercely independent character, and is not caught up in the superficial exploits of her wealthy cohorts.  While many look down at her for pursuing a nursing career, and while the male nurses and many doctors around her treat her and her female colleagues with brutal disgust, she plods along and doles out the outstanding, compassionate care she is trained to deliver.  

On the other hand, Jemma and Anne-May are not real people, but rather, created as representative characters that are typical of their era.  Jemma, a young and strong-willed woman, born into enslavement and treated harshly most of her life, carries trauma both physical and psychological with stolid forbearance. She keeps fighting for what she believes in, but she is also realistic and understands more than most man’s capacity for evil. And Anne-May happens to be one of the ones to show her how deeply this capacity runs. 

One of the most moving parts, for me, was a scene in which Jemma finds herself in the warm embrace of the Woolsey sisters. Finally finding a moment of respite from her terrifying world, she is given a chance to experience freedom in a way she’s never felt before. Sadly, she finds herself under a new kind of oppression. While there is good intention and care, she is still being told what to read, what to think and what to do. In a dramatic moment, she blurts out in anger, asking to be left alone to decide these things for herself.  As often happens, one of the sisters takes offense, because of her well-intentioned motives, not realizing that her actions and their repercussions are independent of her intention.  Only Georgy is able to take in what she is saying and their bond tightens because of it. This is a powerful moment that resonates still today.

In this gorgeous novel you will find breathless suspense, moments of deep sorrow, and dramatic scenes of triumph, and each of the characters will bring you on a journey you will love being on with them.  Martha Hall Kelly has absolutely done it again, with this third in the series about this awe-inspiring family and has created another MUST READ for us all.  These are truly gifts she has bestowed on us – and I for one am grateful. 

 

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Although she’s been told she’s worth nothing her whole life, Elsa still dreams of a world in which she might accomplish something worthwhile. Being 25 and unmarried in the early 1930’s is a pretty clear indication that chances are slim that you will be leaving your family home at all. No, you’ll likely be under the thumb of your overbearing, critical mother and father your whole life. Unless you take action. Unless you do something drastic – like maybe buy that bolt of bold, red silk and sew yourself that beautiful, lavish dress and just sneak out for that night on the town and pretend you’re like everyone else– to hell with what they say. Be brave, her doting grandfather used to say to her. Well, she just might. Little does Elsa know that being brave will have to carry her through all of what comes thereafter, as she takes each next step, wanted or not.

In The Four Winds, Kristin Hannah has written what will inevitably come to be known as a great American novel, a sort of Grapes of Wrath narrated through the voice of a woman. We are lured inside the head and the heart of our heroine, Elsa, a modest, resourceful, and hard-working woman, bitterly rejected by her own family. She easily earns our sympathy, as she gradually gains her own strength, visualizing her own purpose. We feel love when she is finally loved and we shed tears when she is hurt, and we applaud her as she overcomes one arduous obstacle after another.

This is also a story of a dark era in our history. The Dust Bowl crisis during the Great Depression was a tragic consequence of the prolonged drought that occurred during the 1930’s, and layered onto the economic crisis of the Depression, it could not have come at a worse time. Scorched farmlands bankrupted thousands, and, lured by advertisements for jobs, too many fled west and found only steeper poverty and absent resources. The narrative starkly highlights the failure of our country to adequately provide for those who were left with nothing.  This left those who were more fortunate, empowered by their vigilante groups, to demonstrate only anger and hatred toward these folks who were starving for work, starving to have the opportunity to help themselves. 

I love that the women here are strong characters. Elsa grows into a strong character as she comes to know herself. Her daughter, Loreda, is born strong – rebellious, with a righteous anger that is sometimes misdirected but always idealistic. And there is Elsa’s mother-in-law, Rose, with her quieter strength – a woman who is fiercely loyal, uncomplaining, and who has the softest heart and is present when it matters. These are beautiful characters who will likely stay with you long after you finish turning the pages of this novel.

This story will singe a hole in your heart, but it will also fill it with admiration for the souls who fought for others, to raise up the unfortunate. It also reminds us how frequently history does repeat itself and how important it is to learn from the past.

A definite MUST READ – and a future classic.

 

Tiny Little Thing by Beatriz Williams

Tiny has always been the perfect everything – the perfect daughter, the perfect sister, and now she’s expected to be the perfect wife as well.  And Frank requires the perfect wife – doesn’t he? – if he is to be elected to congress, as he should be. But what about Tiny? What about what she really wants? Does it matter? Should she make it matter?

Beatriz Williams never fails to deliver the most lovable characters, impeccable writing packed with humor and expectation, and a twist that assures that she is always one step ahead of you. You will find yourself giggling at her sarcastic phrasing – so often brilliant – even in those thrilling moments when you cannot stop turning the pages.  And you will relish in that delicious tension of not being able to read quickly enough to get to know what happens and not being able to read slowly enough to make the joy of it last longer. 

And please don’t mistake this for fluff.  There are subtle but important issues here.  Williams intentionally elevates strong female protagonists, and Tiny is yet another.  She struggles here for independence, and in the mid-1960’s, this is no easy mission. It wasn’t done, not in the family she married into, not in the social sphere in which she circulated. Women were only just beginning to break out of the 1950’s housewife-who-always-had-dinner-on-the-table-and-a-martini-waiting-for-her-husband-at-the-end-of-his-workday stereotype. Even as Tiny frets over how she cares too much what others think of her, she realizes that she must depart from what is expected of her in order to preserve her true self. 

This may not be a “MUST READ” but you really must read this – it is pure delight!

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

In this tender memoir, Trevor Noah shares his experience growing up during the final edge of apartheid in South Africa. Through vividly narrated vignettes, we learn about his complicated relationship with his mother, who is fiercely devoted to him and yet is independent, stubborn and vulnerable. We learn of his early struggles to find himself, and how he must battle against the vicious cycle of poverty that apartheid has inflicted upon his people.  

It was suggested to me to listen to the audio version of this book – and this was excellent advice.  Hearing Trevor Noah narrate his own story, in his own beautiful, South African accent and fluidly modulating to his family and friends’ voices and accents, is just a gift to yourself. 

Noah is a brilliant storyteller.  He shares his experiences with such warmth and humor, as if he is sitting with you in your living room, over a cup of your favorite hot tea – but as if he’s sharing his deepest, darkest memories, only with you.  He describes in colorful detail some of the most outrageous adventures and unbelievable experiences.  But even as he shares his joy and his pain, it is as if he is flickering a smile at you, as if to say, we can still laugh, even as we hurt.  This is how we cope.

You will be engrossed and amazed — you will gasp and you will laugh out loud.  Don’t just read this one – listen to it!  

It’s a “MUST READ” but more than that, it’s a “MUST LISTEN!”

 

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Nuri and his wife, Afra, have survived the arduous trek from Aleppo to the UK, and while they are awaiting their asylum application interview, they are staying in a B & B with immigrants with similarly devastating pasts. This waiting is not easy. Nuri is plagued by flashbacks of their escape from Syria, the trauma and losses they’ve experienced during the war there, and the anxiety about what lies ahead. But because he is seeing this trauma through his own eyes, he is finding it hard to connect with Afra, who is seeing it through her own. The question is whether or not they will find their way back to the family they know they once were.

This is not my first exposure to the refugee experience; though this may be one of the most poignant. I believe what contributes greatly to this is the sensorial nature of the author’s descriptions.   We inhale Afra’s rose perfume as Nuri does,.  We hear the buzzing of the hives tended to by Nuri and his cousin, Moustafa.  And we can envision the stark colors of the drawings created by Afra, even when she cannot. And since we are right there in the sensory experience, we are also with them in their fear, their vulnerability, not knowing whom to trust, wondering where their next meal or shelter will come from or how they will get to the next step of their journey. We feel it in our bones.

In this depiction, we also see the worst of people and the best, as we do in most crises.  We see the vultures who prey on the vulnerable, those who profit from those who are destitute and desperate and the corrupt underworld that feed off of this humanitarian nightmare.  As Nuri gains the trust of others in his travels, he learns their stories and sees that his situation is not even the worst possible, and he feels deeply, especially for the plight of the many babies and young children refugees.  On the other hand, he also encounters many who are kind, those who give food and clothing to the passing refugees, and those who do show compassion and support them in their journey. 

I think this is an important read with an understated yet powerful impact that will linger with you long after you turn the last page.  

 

Before I Let You Go by Kelly Rimmer

It’s been 2 years since Lexie has heard from her sister, Annie, but she knows that her call can only harbor some tumultuous disaster.  Chaos has always followed Annie, ever since their messy youth, and Lexie has always been there to be the adult in the room and to pick up the pieces for her.  But this call… this blow may be more than even Lexie may be able to patch back together for her.  This may be the one time that Annie may have to rise to the occasion and solve it for herself.  

From the first page, we are locked in.  Rimmer’s writing is fluid and compassionate although we can sometimes guess where the plot will take us, we are still so fond of these endearing characters that we feel compelled to keep turning the pages and follow them through their painful and hard-earned wins and losses.  As the narrative bounces back and forth between Lexie’s current day experience and Annie’s journal entries, we are given a window into both what is happening now and what their explosive past has been like for each of them.  And we cannot help but become emotional as this tender and tragic and beautiful story unfolds.

There is so much to unpack here, but I will try not to give too much away as I try to do so.  One major theme is the injustice of our patriarchal laws around maternal-child welfare.  Our laws that protect the unborn are geared to protect children, yes, but they completely ignore the woman who is hosting the growth of that unborn not-yet-person – and this is obvious throughout this story.  This problem with our judicial system is magnified if that woman/host is afflicted with any kind of addiction.  She is blamed for having a disease that is out of her control.  We do not take away babies from mothers who do not care for their out-of-control gestational diabetes- nor should we! –  but we imprison mothers who use illicit substances while pregnant.  These mothers all have medical issues that need to be addressed, but because one is considered “bad” and one is considered “medical” we place a moral judgement upon one vs the other.  As is pointed out in the novel, we should be spending the money that we use to imprison these women on evidence-based treatment for these mothers, parenting support when the babies are born and on early childhood interventions, if we REALLY want to benefit these children.  Children generally do best when they are with their families.  This is highlighted here so very starkly and appropriately.  

Families are complicated and messy and Rimmer gets this so right.  You cannot help but have your heart melt from this one.  

Another MUST READ!

 

An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski

An Invisible Thread Sews Together An Unusual Friendship – CW50 Detroit

 

Laura was no stranger to the streets of Manhattan in the mid-1980’s, but something made her stop and turn around after passing a small, skinny, Black boy asking for money on one fateful Monday afternoon.  His name was Maurice, and he was half-starved, and when she invited him for lunch at McDonald’s, he accepted.  Laura was careful not to pry too far, but could see that Maurice was fending largely for himself, and she was unsure if she’d ever even see him again or how that would happen.  To her amazement, though, she did, every Monday from then on.  From this bloomed an unlikely friendship that became a blessing for both Laura and Maurice.  

This is a true story that is told from Laura’s perspective, but gives a great deal of background from Maurice’s family experience as well.  Both of them have experienced a great deal of family trauma, although Maurice’s is quite dire, with most of his family falling victim to the devastating crack epidemic of the 1980’s.  While Maurice is clearly loved by his family, particularly his mother and grandmother, they are both usually too ill to properly care for him and he is often left to his own,  skillful, but youthful devices.  When Laura meets him, he is living in a crowded single room with many drug-addicted relatives where there is no routine, no structure, and never any food in the fridge.  Laura is the first person to ask him what he might consider being when he grows up, giving him a first glimpse of the possibility of a real future for himself, besides what he sees in his family.  

On one hand, this story is inspiring.  Laura speaks freely about how she has gained as much from the relationship as she has given.  While she truly has given, whether in lunches made in brown paper bags – signifying to Maurice a show of love and care for him – or clothing, or just a periodic respite from his tumultuous family life, she has also received.  She has not had relationships where she was able to have children, and I believe Maurice was sort of like a son to her.  She was able to lavish attention, occasional gifts and intermittently share her wisdom with him, the way she might with a son, and she felt gratification in this.  And certainly, Maurice was given something of a lifeline, in that he was shown a different possibility for how his life might be – that he did not have to follow the path of his family and that he could choose a steadier, healthier, and safer path for himself.  And he did.

On the other hand, the story being written as it was also feels a bit self-congratulatory and almost cringe-worthy.  We’re here again, with another white woman “saving'” a Black boy – and it just feels a bit uncomfortable to read about this.  Laura is truly generous and giving – but why does she have to write about it?  While “a portion” of the proceeds from the book are destined for the No Kid Hungry non-profit group, it still feels a bit strange. 

I’d be very curious to hear what others feel about this book and this issue.  I invite your comments!  I am truly torn over this one!