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…!

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

Julia cannot believe how far she’s come. Considering where she started – a teen mom, struggling to keep a roof over her head – she’s feeling almost embarrassed at the size of her new home, with its pool and its technology that her husband Brad insisted on installing. When she meets her new neighbor, Valerie, she learns about the stately old tree whose roots they’ve apparently encroached upon with the building of their pool. She also meets Valerie’s son, Zay. And so does Julia’s daughter, Juniper. And here is where it all starts to get complicated…

I loved this book. Therese Anne Fowler confronts two common themes – climate change and racism, both obviously serious and challenging – but does so without preaching and with warmth, tenderness, and suspense. Creating characters that are entirely relatable, she wraps us up in their lives as if we are living right there in the neighborhood with them. She also uses an extraordinary narrative voice of “we” (presumably the neighborhood voice, perhaps even the book club members from early on in the book) which gives the reader the feeling that we are chatting over coffee with the neighbors about what is happening in our back yard. But we’re also inside the heads of the characters, so we understand their past and why they choose the actions than impact their futures. And just as if we’re watching a bad accident in slow motion, we can’t help yelling for them to not move forward, as we see them heading toward disaster. We are so invested in them because it feels like they really are our neighbors.

One concept that I’d not really heard much of prior to reading this was the “purity pledge” which this book brought to light. This is a vow of celibacy that girls (of course, mostly girls) take during a ceremony in their (often Southern Baptist) Christian church. It was most popular in the 1990’s and was apparently a source of great shame and struggle for so many. Yet another way to oppress women, deny their sexuality, and keep them under wraps, I suppose. (see article in NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/us/abstinence-pledge-evangelicals.html)

A Good Neighborhood is a quick read, but a valuable one. I’d even go so far as to give it a MUST READ rating. I think the writing is excellent, I think the story is valuable, and the message is critical, especially in this moment.

 

 

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

“Mad Molly” has surprisingly been able to survive up there in her house on her hill, but now that her daughter Tillie has returned, everyone wonders how it will go for them. In the past, Tillie has brought nothing but misfortune for everyone around her. Even Tillie doubts that she can bring anything but danger. The one good thing she does bring is her talent for sewing clothes of the latest fashion, and this does not go unnoticed by those who eye her closely as she joins the persistent Teddy McSweeney at her first town dance. One by one, they approach her to become their seamstress, but there is a history that cannot be ignored. And that history comes back to haunt all of them.

This is a mean little novel. I found the writing to be coarse and fragmented and the many characters so unlikable (with a few exceptions) that it was hard work to keep track of who was related to whom. Even Tillie, the heroine of the story, was kept so vague, so distant from the reader, that I felt I barely got to know her. I was granted only tiny morsels of her past life, which were tossed in as tiny gems buried in the muck of the small town politics and gossip that took up most of the novel. While I was told of the intricate details of the dresses she sewed, I was told almost nothing of the life she’d lived before she came home to her mother. One must bond to the characters to feel for them.

A bitter disappointment, this one. Don’t waste your time.

 

 

 

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.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

When Astrid witnesses the sudden death of her long-time acquaintance, it shakes her to her core. She has a sudden realization about her own life, how fragile that might be. Astrid has never been a nurturer, never exuded much warmth or patience, but she’s working on that now. And as she struggles to make up for the past, she begins to really learn who her children and grandchildren have become, almost in spite of her.

While this is not high literature, nor a deeply moving novel, it does serve up an amusing, light summer read while sitting under your umbrella at the beach. The characters are vague but interesting enough – and the plot is not exactly complex, but it holds your attention until the last page.

It does speak to both the highlights and the pressures/challenges of living in a small town.  While it might be easier to have the familiarity of being surrounded by those one has grown up alongside, there are also the expectations, the assumptions that come along with that. Astrid’s children have each been coping with these pressures in their own ways, sometimes effectively and often dysfunctionally. One of her children fled the town because of this pressure.  It seems that Astrid had never taken this into account until some of the crises in the story emerged.

This is definitely NOT a MUST READ, but it’s an appropriate book to pack along with your bathing suit and towel…

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!

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

If you don’t play hockey, or follow hockey, or at least tolerate hockey, you will not last long in Beartown. The entire population, intimate as it is, is consumed with it. Kids begin skating once they can walk, and everyone is on the lookout for those charmed few, those who have that natural gift, that drive, that will send them through to the A-team. Kevin certainly has it, and with Benji at his side, fighting off any opponent who might threaten his path, he is a sure shot. That is, until a crime is committed, which might just change everything.

Fredrik Backman is another writer who, by virtue of the beauty of his writing, has me convinced that there is no way I should ever even think of trying to write. He has the uncanny ability to weave complicated, layered, and realistic plot lines around complex and gorgeous characters.  And unlike with some novels with so many characters, we come to know each one so well that we never confuse any of them, never wonder who is whom, because we have fallen in love with most of them. The warmth with which he imbues them grants them their familiarity. They become our dear friends.

Also, there is a beautiful message here about the challenge of loyalty; whether that be loyalty to one’s family, to one’s friends,  to one’s team., or to one’s own values. Most of the characters find themselves wrestling here with conflicting loyalties. and some impress us and some disappoint us. But all of them are so stunningly human in their struggling. My favorite is Ramona, who is a bartender. She’s depicted as someone who’s seen it all, and who has been loyal to those who have lost the loyalties of most everyone else. She sees people for who they are, not who they profess to be. I would love to be more like Ramona.

This book has it all – characters, plot, warmth, important message – all the makings of a MUST READ!

 

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

Now that Malik has grown and has been educated in a more formal way, Lakshmi feels a responsibility to continue his training by sending him back to Jaipur to be exposed to the practical aspects of the construction business, which will inevitably continue to open doors for him professionally. While he is not her son by birth, Lakshmi has taken him under her wing since he was 8 years old, cared for him almost like a son, and feels a responsibility toward him – no, really an affection toward him, as if he were her own. And while he is hesitant, because of his newly blossoming relationship with Nimmi, a local Himalayan widow with 2 young children, he is also respectful and appreciative of his opportunity to learn more and grow from the relationships he has in Jaipur. Little does he know that a disaster awaits of epic proportion that will change the course of his life and potentially endanger both his future and the future of his beloved Nimmi.

For readers of The Henna Artist, this is a must-read. It is the next in this beautiful series and informs us of what happens to the resourceful, loyal and beloved character, Malik after he has grown and matured. While he has become a bit more cosmopolitan from his prep school education, he retains his down-to-earth integrity and grit, and he and Lakshmi continue to be the force to be reckoned with as a team, almost despite themselves.

And even while we may see where the story is headed in general, there are enough suspenseful twists and turns to keep our noses in this book and keep the pages turning. And the warmth and love that spills onto the pages keeps us needing to know that our characters will all be ok in the end. We also have the added plus that we get to learn about Indian culture, as well as about the culture of some of the Himalayan nomadic tribes as well.

This is a delightful novel that will bring you joy and warmth as you read – and what is better than that???

Joan is Okay by Weike Wang

Joan is an ICU attending at West Side Hospital in New York City. She is never happier than when she is reveling in the fast pace and the intensity of the Medical ICU, almost worshiping the machines that aid her in maintaining the lives of her patients. So why does everyone around her concern themselves with what else she might be doing? Why do her brother and his wife constantly ask her when she’s going to move to Greenwich and get married? Why does her neighbor, Mark, feel compelled to force-feed her a diet of current and past pop culture, as if there’s some form of test at the end? As Joan comes to terms with various changes around her, in her family, and in the world, she also learns to become more rooted and comfortable with who she happens to be.

This is, quite subtly, a coming of age story, although the heroine is already of age. While she is a fully accomplished adult, having achieved a brilliant career, those around her still are not satisfied and feel they need to impose upon her their own values of what a “full” life entails. Interestingly, I found myself, as the reader, getting sucked into the allure of what these others were suggesting for her. It initially feels innocent enough, particularly from her neighbor, Mark. It feels, at first, like generosity. But we see that what masquerades as kind very gradually reveals itself to be presumptuous and patronizing. Sometimes what others need and want, in fact, is to be left alone.

The writing here is superb. The story rumbles along in a way that is nakedly honest, much like the thought patterns of Joan herself. Her observations are often awkward and flat – and yet clearly betray her struggle over her identity and her relationships, both familial and social.

This is an engaging read, with a lot to say about how we interact with others who might see the world differently from how we might.