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!

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Through this deeply moving memoir, Kiese Laymon shares his experience having grown up as a black male in a larger body in the deep South.  He shares his earlier traumas, his fonder memories, and how he has learned to cope with both the times his mother was absent and the times she was present.  

This is a such a gritty, revealing memoir that reading it feels almost voyeuristic.  Writing it as a letter to his mother, Laymon is so deeply introspective and revelatory that we peer into his private window, we peek inside his heart.  We experience his profound sense of pain and powerlessness as he watches the women in his life become victimized by other men.  His anger is, sadly, directed inward – as it so often is.  It manifests first as binge eating and later as restriction and overexercising.  This coping strategy works for him, however, until it doesn’t.  Meanwhile, he is able to be as resilient as possible, forging relationships,  excelling academically and achieving goals on his terms.  

As a side note, I so appreciate that Laymon has come forward with this memoir, because it defiles so many stereotypes of who struggles with eating disorders.  As he acknowledges himself, eating disorders are thought to exist only in upper class, white women – and this is just not true. Folks of all genders, races, and socioeconomic strata utilize these behaviors to cope with their lives and one can never assume anyone is free or “protected” because of who they are or appear to be.  These are secretive behaviors and cannot be diagnosed by someone’s appearance.  And they can be very painful, distracting, and most importantly, life-threatening – never to be taken lightly.

This is also an important memoir from the perspective of understanding racial issues and racism.   Laymon shares his encounters with racism and digests them with us, his readers.  Both he and his mother, in spite of their obvious intelligence and academic accomplishments, are underpaid and frequently disrespected.   But, again, he also places his experiences into context.  He understands that even when he’s been treated as less than, he is still not at the bottom of the totem pole, being a male as opposed to a female person of color.  His compassionate view of the women in his life enables him to see their utter vulnerability to the forces of bias and power imbalance. 

I deeply appreciate this memoir, for all its raw and painful honesty. This is a hard read but well worth the work of it.  

 

 

 

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!

 

The Secrets We Keep by Kate Hewitt

The Secrets We Keep by Kate Hewitt

Tessa is praying that this summer in the Finger Lake region of New York will be a reboot for her family.  Back home in Brooklyn, her daughter, Katherine, so shy and disconnected, and her son, Ben, energetic and rambunctious, have had such difficulty making friends, just as Tessa herself has.  Maybe this is just what they need.  When they meet the family in the beautiful house next door, they are a bit taken aback.  Rebecca, and her 3 children appear at first to be the type of New York family they have been trying to escape.  On the other hand, Rebecca does seem different, offering something of herself, some vulnerability that Tessa has not seen from the Brooklynites she’s encountered.  Could this ben the friendship she’s looking for?  Could this be her opportunity for change?  

The writing  in this novel is wonderful in that it plays into the stereotypes of the Manhattan upper-crust socialite and the Brooklyn self-righteous idealist – and presents motherhood and its challenges as the great equalizer.  Both Tessa and Rebecca are battling their own demons — and demons do not see caste, do they?  Loneliness and trauma can exist in anyone, no matter how they may look on the outside.  Moreover, it can blind us to other people’s pain as well, even the pain of our own family.  

I would have liked to have known more about Charlotte, Rebecca’s daughter.  She is described only as “easy” and beautiful, and confident,  but there is clearly more going on with her, as we ultimately learn.  It might have been interesting to add a third voice,  to learn what is going on in her head.  She is obviously a much more complicated character, even at only 11 years old, but we are only allotted surface details.  

This is a gripping novel that will keep you reading late into the night and it is also guaranteed to wrench at your heart – but, I think, you will also be glad you’ve read it!

 

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard

 

Nine months after a stormy night in a small town in New Hampshire, 2 baby girls were born to 2 different families within 2 hours of each other, earning them the moniker of the “birthday sisters.”   Ruth was brought home to her parents’ farm, home to many generations of Planks who were deeply rooted to their many acres of New Hampshire soil.  Dana was brought home to her family, the Dickersons, a bohemian, nomadic household.   And even though the Dickersons’ wanderings soon took them away from their small town, Ruth’s mother, in particular, made a strong effort to keep the families in touch.  Who could explain that magnet that kept pulling the families together, when they felt so very different?   

There was so much in this novel but yet I felt a bit let down.  The writing was solid, as expected in a novel by Joyce Maynard.  The characters are complicated and messy (in a good way!) but yet somewhat predictable and just this side of stereotypical.  I think it is the plot that was most disappointing, for as it builds to what is likely the crescendo, we also kind of know what is likely going on.  We’ve figured it out already and are just watching it play out.  And though there are some subtle turns of events that are revealed, we’ve sort of guessed at these as well, and we take these in as expected.  I did not have a huge “aha” moment, which I crave from a book like this.  

I don’t think I’m cynical–  I love a good plot twist!  I just didn’t find any here, where I felt it needed one. 

I”d be very curious to hear what others think!  Please write and let me know…! 

 

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy: 9780307475480 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Although Noel is a grown man, he doesn’t think it odd that he still lives with his parents.  He goes about his business and they go about theirs.  In fact, they are so immersed in their own quirky religious observances and their own private anxieties that they are oblivious to the fact that Noel has been spending every evening sitting alone at (and often being kicked out of) the neighborhood bar. Life may have continued along this path, had Emily, Noel’s older cousin from New York,  not come to visit, in order to reconnect with her Irish roots. Emily quickly immerses herself in their little community and in her tactful way, provides Noel with the support he needs to confront his alcoholism. But will he be able to continue to be strong when he is confronted with the ultimate stressor of them all?

Within the pages of this entertaining novel by Maeve Binchy, we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters that are intertwined with Noel and Emily. We are invited into the fabric of their stories almost as if we are yet another one of their idiosyncratic neighbors ourselves, and we delight in their successes and worry over their problems as if they are our own.  Because they are depicted with such extraordinary detail, they are tactile and 3-dimensional.   Binchy’s imagination is in full evidence here.

While there is a bit of blind faith in believing this story and how it all plays out, it is worth the bit of the stretch for the fun of it.  Follow along and you will be entertained, you will laugh and worry, and you will not “mind Frankie” at all!

 

 

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

The Book of Two Ways: A Novel: Picoult, Jodi: 9781984818355: Amazon.com:  Books

Dawn, is a death doula, one who gently and passionately escorts those who are dying through this process. She is also married and the mother of Meret. Right now, though, she is on a plane, and all of that other stuff means nothing because this plane is going down and the only one she is thinking about is an old flame, Wyatt. What does this signify? Where does her heart really belong?

As usual, Picoult has managed to entangle her readers (or at least this one) in another intricately woven fabric of rich characters who walk off of the page and into your heart. As Dawn wrestles between her past, red passion for Wyatt and her current, serene comfort with her husband Brian, we feel this wrenching tension as if it is our own. When Meret struggles, we struggle. When her dying patient declines, we decline. The effect of this is that Picoult is able to render the reader sympathetic to every perspective, and as Dawn digs deeper and deeper into her quandary, we are more and more wedded to every possible outcome.

Likewise, as in her other books, Picoult has done her due diligence in her research – and here, it is on the topic of Ancient Egypt. Here we learn about this civilization’s many rites and rituals celebrating the dead and dying. We learn about hieroglyphic translations and the symbolism of the art inside their tombs. We learn that this art tells the story of the life of the individual who is buried there, and, moreover, how Egyptologists learn about the culture and society from these findings.

We also learn of a beautiful way of leaving this world. I’d never heard of a death doula, but it is a lovely idea and sounds like a wonderful luxury. To have someone to attend to the “business” of dying – not the medical issues, mind you — but the messiness of it. Taking care of your last wishes, ensuring that you get to see the people you want to see, ensuring your matters are wrapped up, having someone to hold your hand as you take your last breath. How precious is that.

This is yet another incredible work by Jodi Picoult. As readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan. Some argue that she has a formula in her work – and I see that, but for me it works. She develops intricate plots that challenge current complex issues, she creates beautiful, human, complex characters, and she writes them witty dialogue that always keeps me surprised. What more can you ask for in a novel?

SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK, DON’T CONTINUE READING!

I am curious to know what others think of the ending…. I was surprised and initially very disappointed at this one, actually. My first reaction was that it was a cop-out. However, the more I thought about it, the more I believe it was fully intentional and not just avoidance. Going along with the theme of “two ways” and Brian’s physics theory, maybe she imagines there is a way for her to be choosing both? Meret certainly got 2 dads here, as it happened, right? Or maybe it is just symbolic of how so many times, we want to go in 2 directions at the same time and decisions in life are hard. But these decisions often impact the ultimate direction of our lives in so many ways, setting us on a path that we cannot possibly foresee.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend: A Novel: Dicks, Matthew: 9781250031853:  Amazon.com: Books

Budo is Max’s imaginary friend, and therefore is visible only to Max and to other imaginary friends. He is able to slide through doorways and windows, appear almost real, and run quite fast, but only because Max has imagined him so. He has been alive longer than many of his fellow imaginary friends and he is quite proud of this fact – although it gives him some anxiety because he is aware that his time in existence may be limited. In fact, he’s watched others disappear. On the other hand, he knows that Max needs him more than many other kids need their imaginary friends, because Max, as Budo describes him, lives more on the inside than on the outside. As Budo narrates Max’s story, we see how truly dependent on Budo Max is – and yet how eventually, Budo empowers Max to save himself.

What begins with the feel of a children’s book actually builds into quite an insightful and even suspenseful novel. Telling the story from the perspective of the imaginary friend gives the story an air of innocence, lulling the reader into a false sense that all will remain benign. This provides that much more of a jolt when Max, who is clearly caught unaware, does get entrapped in a very precarious situation.

This is also a subtle and powerful way to communicate the experience of a child who likely carries the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder, formerly known as Asperger’s. Budo speaks for Max as he describes what he likes and doesn’t like, how he has an easier time with routine, how he cannot tolerate too much stimuli, and that he prefers not to be touched. He describes that he prefers to be alone or with Budo, and that he’s ok with being alone, even if his parents are worried by this. Budo also describes the frequent discomfort of others around Max. He highlights the few, and one teacher in particular, who really make an effort to get to know who Max is. He loves this teacher because she focuses on Max’s strengths rather than his shortcomings, how he is special, rather than how he is different.

This is a beautiful story, with very unique narration, and with a surprising crescendo. Something quite different, for sure!

The Missing Letters of Mrs. Bright by Beth Miller

The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright: An absolutely unputdownable feel good  novel about love, loss and taking chances - Kindle edition by Miller, Beth.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

It is time for Kay to end her marriage. She does not have a solid plan of what she will do, but she knows it is time. Her life just has not worked out the way she’d hoped –she has not accomplished even half the goals she’d listed as a young and optimistic teenager. Maybe now is the time to begin to work on them. She’d enlist Bear to come with her to conquer some of these goals – Bear would understand, if anyone would. That is if Bear is ok. She hasn’t actually heard from Bear in months. As Kay seeks out her dear friend, she begins to also discover more about herself, and develop the courage to follow her own, true path.

This story is sort of “midlife crisis lite.” While Kay is truly going through a difficult time, and her decision impacts many around her, no one really seems to be that bothered by any of it. She herself is maybe a bit thrown, and while she has no idea what she’ll do for money or where she’ll live, she seems to not be worried about these details. Likewise, her husband is a bit shocked and maybe doesn’t get out of bed for a few days, but then bounces back so quickly that he’s already moved on by the time she’s returned for her things. Her daughter is bothered by it, but she is, in fact, mobilized out of her own quagmire of stasis, so it works out for her as well. It all fits just a little too perfectly.

On the other hand, this may be just the right tone for this moment, as Covid is still raging, as our country is still so divided, and as we are all struggling to make it through our days – maybe this is the one place where things can work out alright and life can fit back into place. Maybe that is what fiction is for?