Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

When a Latin tutor gazes out a window, barely listening to his charges recite their verb conjugations, his eye catches sight of a bewitching woman with a falcon on her arm. Suddenly taken with her, he extricates himself from his classroom duties and goes to find her,  feels he needs to know who she is.  He soon comes to learn that this woman, Agnes, has a sense not only of birds, but of so much of nature,  human nature, and natural remedies – more than most. It is only when tragedy upends their lives when they both learn that one can only control so much of what happens in nature and that man will always have limitations.  

Underneath this love story is also a fictional version of how the play, Hamlet, came to be written by William Shakespeare. The tutor, of course, is Shakespeare, and Hamnet is his son, a twin, who died at a young age of the Black Plague. The plot is vividly imagined and lovingly told, but it is no wonder that a tragedy was borne from it. It is a heart-wrenching story.  And not to worry – even knowing this, there are still a few twists that keep the reader guessing until the very end. 

For me, there was quite a bit of hype surrounding this book, which was maybe/maybe not deserved, so I don’t want to build it up for anyone else. But it is a worthwhile read, particularly if you like historical fiction.

I’d be very curious to hear what others felt about this one!

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

All Elizabeth has ever wanted is to be given the freedom and the respect to pursue her theories and experiments in chemistry. Unfortunately, given that it is the 1950’s and America is just not ready for a woman to be anything but a wife or a mother, she is thwarted at every turn. That is, until she meets her match in Calvin Evans, a fellow scientist who recognizes, appreciates and encourages her endeavors. When Calvin has an unexpected accident and their lives are turned upside down, Elizabeth finds a way to meet her new challenges in the most unexpected way imaginable.

This is a sort of Eleanor Oliphant meets Julia Child story, if you can imagine that! It is a bit of an outrageous plot that actually, somehow works. While much of it relies on just going with it, if you do you are rewarded with a delightful and imaginative ride that is at once pensive, philosophical and, occasionally, true laugh-out-loud moments.

Elizabeth feels like a hard character to get to know. She’s been used poorly, taken advantage of, and not respected in spite of her vast intellectual capacity. Because of the time she lives in, she has a hard time trusting and has a very closed circle of those she can open up to. We feel her vulnerability and root for her throughout the story, feeling protective of her, in spite of her awkwardness and abruptness. Most importantly, we love what she inspires in others – the confidence to be smart and one’s authentic self, which was not an easy task in 1950’s America for women. It’s really an ideal scenario that would have been a wonderful reality for so many had it been true.

There are a number of interesting commentaries on religion here as well. When she admits that she does not believe in God, there are severe repercussions to her reputation.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

In this second in the Beartown trilogy, we happily find ourselves back in Beartown, where we learn that the sacred hockey A team has lost its funding. That is, until a shadow company suddenly appears through the machinations of an ambitious politician, propping up Peter Andersson, the team’s general manager. There is one minor condition, however: the team’s most ardent (and most intimidating) supporters, the “Pack,” will lose their spot in the stands.  Because of Beartown’s small town interconnections, this stipulation has big implications, further dividing the population in mean ways.  As their games approach, their rivalry with the opposing team of Hed grows fierce, and what should be “just a game” goes far beyond.

Backman once again has kept this reader utterly glued to this novel, as it has everything one could want – complex characters with palpable hearts; a plot that is elaborate but clear; and writing that is insightful but not preachy.

The warm love Backman feels for his characters is contagious.   Backman has a way of showing the vulnerability of some who are troubled, where it may originate from, and how those who are labelled as “bad” may actually be so good, particularly when it really matters. The members of the “Pack,” for example, who, on the outside, appear as “hooligans” are fiercely loyal to each other and to so many folks in Beartown. When someone is in need or disaster strikes, they are the first ones there to help, to do whatever menial task is necessary. That is loyalty and that is what good people do. While they are described as having unconventional ways of expressing themselves, yes, and they may sometimes end up on the wrong side of the law, they are nevertheless the ones folks rely upon. 

This is a beautiful story, once again. And I look forward to when #3 comes out, next month – I am guessing we won’t be disappointed! 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Bert Cousins has managed once again to escape his home full of young children (and another on the way, somehow), this time to attend a christening party to which he was not even invited. Oh, he knows Fix Keating, a bit, but he never knew Fix’s wife was so beautiful – stunning, really. After aiding Fix in locating the just-christened baby who seemed to have gone missing, Bert finds himself alone with the lovely Beverly. It takes just one kiss between them to set their lives, and the lives of their children, on a whole new trajectory.

Ann Patchett has imagined very realistic characters within the pages of this novel, each of whom is coping with the fallout from this decision between Bert and Beverly. The characters are richly portrayed, as are their familial relationships. The children’s connections are strong, strained, tender, and challenging. In spite of the physical distance from each other that grows as they do, their connection is instinctual, reflex. And like in most families, their attachments are complicated by their tangential stories, layered with both love and resentment.

There are times in our lives we say or do something, make a certain choice one way or another, that we think inconsequential, but may actually have ramifications far beyond anything we can imagine. This story exemplifies this over and over again in a very powerful way.

 

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…!

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums

6-year old Aoife has had a very rough day. On a trip to the mall to buy new shoes, her mom stopped their car outside the mall and started crying and yelling loudly enough that she was brought to a special hospital. Aoife knows her mom’s been having some difficulty – even at 6, Aoife knows most moms do not talk to their dead sons. Now Aoife is being taken care of by her Uncle Donny. It feels like it is now up to her to solve the mystery of how her brother came to be dead, because maybe that will bring her mother back home. When she enlists her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her next door neighbor/best friend to solve this mystery, things get all the more complicated.

I was hoping for more from this story. Relaying the story from the perspective of the 6-year old with her imaginary friend was a clever move. However, from the outset, there was minimal description of the characters themselves, and because I couldn’t picture them, I found it hard to connect to them. I did feel for Aoife – her relationship with her mother was endearing and I felt compassion for her mother and her mother’s circumstances. But the other characters, such as the uncle, the mother’s boyfriend, and Aoife’s best friend, were all obtuse and unidimensional. Similarly, because the voice was continuously from Aoife, the plot felt simplistic and even the twists were blandly delivered.

I think the idea was creative, but ultimately I was not impressed by the execution. I’d be curious to hear what others think…!

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.

 

 

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!

 

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.