Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro, an author of both fiction and memoirs, has agreed to her husband’s request to both send off their saliva specimens to Ancestry.com – quite on a lark.  Just a curiosity – something she could have just as easily decided not to do.  The results, however, turned her world upside down.  This is her true story of the fallout from that single decision.

Spoiler alert:  If you don’t want to know anything more and you might read this book, please don’t read on.

What Shapiro learns is that her father is actually not her biological father.  The person she felt closest to, proudest of, particularly with regard to her heritage – as he’d come from a line of well-respected, learned, Orthodox rabbis – was actually not related to her biologically.  On the other hand, the mother with whom she had a strained, even fearful relationship, was.  And this rocked her world.

While I cannot fully relate to the situation, I have to admit that I had a hard time completely sympathizing with the author. Yes, this must have been a shock and yes, it must have thrown her.  But when she repeatedly referred to this as a “trauma,” I could not help feeling as if this was melodramatic.  The word, trauma, I believe, has become so over-used that its potency has become diluted.  Her year of worrying about her son with a near-fatal disease – THAT was traumatic, I’m sure.  This discovery about her father, I do not think rises to the level of trauma.  And while I agree, to live in a family with secrets was not ideal, it was certainly not uncommon at that time.  The 1950’s and 1960’s were fraught with a different philosophy about what was appropriate to discuss with children.  To apply today’s standards to what was standard then is unfair.

I also thought that this story might have been told in a much shorter format – such as an article in the New Yorker, for example.  As a full-length memoir, it was somewhat drawn out and sometimes actually dull. I was waiting for something truly extraordinary to happen and it did not.  What did begin to capture my interest was her discussion about the Farris clinic, the infertility clinic in Philadelphia where her mother was inseminated.  The doctor went rogue, was practicing without a license, and inventing new techniques in infertility treatments.  Some were actual advancements and some were truly unethical and this would have been fascinating to explore further.  Unfortunately, there was only limited exploration of this clinic and details were doled out sparingly.  This is where I was hoping the story would lead.

All in all, I was left somewhat disappointed.  I’m curious to hear what others think…!

 

 

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!

 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

For anyone who is in therapy, has contemplated therapy, knows someone in therapy, or should be in therapy – and yes, that’s everyone! — this is a great book!

Lori Gottlieb, a therapist who has come to being so by way of having been a screenwriter, a medical student and a journalist, gives a thoughtful account of her experience of going through a sudden, devastating breakup which rocks her world.  Feeling like she’s been blindsided, she seeks out the comfort of a therapist, Wendell (not his real name) whom she expects will join her in her rage against “Boyfriend” who has deserted her after seeming to be committed to their relationship for the past 2 years.  What she receives instead surprises her and gives her space to peer inside and in fact,  find genuine growth and much deeper comfort and understanding than she’d imagined.

A number of people recommended this book to me and I began it reluctantly.  Because of what I do everyday, I thought it might not be the escape that I love books to be.  To my surprise, though, it was exactly that.   Gottlieb is a gifted storyteller and weaves her own story with those of some of her clients.  As she begins to unveil her own journey, she also draws parallels with those of a few of her clients and we come to know and appreciate each of them as they too peel off the layers of their own defenses. We learn some of the terms of the trade, and how therapy works, in a sense — how she gives and takes, as a therapist who is in therapy, and how even if she is a therapist, it is hard to see your own defenses at play.    And she does all of this with kindness and humor.

This is an extremely engaging read – a true story that reads like a novel.  Be ready to laugh and to cry and to seriously think about going into therapy if you aren’t in therapy already!

 

The Storied Life of AJ Filkry by Gabrielle Zevin

I have my friend Jimmy to thank for this one…

AJ is aware of how ornery he has grown and still cannot help himself – no, he almost delights in it, even as it might actually be responsible for driving away the few customers who might visit his tiny, fledgling island bookstore.  But when he is outright nasty to the attractive, new publishing company rep, he actually feels a twinge of remorse.  Two discoveries after this, one a loss and one a find, both that occur in the confines of his bookstore, lead to major changes in AJ’s life that open up his heart once again to the possibility of love and connection to others.

While this is a somewhat unlikely story, and requires some bit of blind acceptance, it is a sweet one, nonetheless.  We’d all love to believe that a middle aged man, set in his ways, living alone, would take in a completely strange toddler left on his doorstep.  It is a beautiful image, but I’m not sure how realistic it is.  But this is fiction, so we’ll go with it.

On the other hand, the setting is a bookstore on an island (a mashup of my 2 favorite kinds of places). The characters are utterly endearing, from the awkward Amelia, the publishing rep with the bad taste in clothes and the great taste in books, to the police chief with the expanding taste in books and the predictable taste in party foods.  They are characters we engage with easily and comfortably, as we would an old armchair.  Even the plot winds around our hearts and tugs gently but surely.  It will get you.

This is a sweet novel and perfect for anyone who loves talking about books – and reading about others who love talking about books!

 

How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas

Dory has not skipped multiple grades as have all of his older siblings.  He has not acquired any advanced academic degrees and he has not defended his PhD thesis.  He believes he is barely even noticed by anyone, even when he routinely runs away from home to test his theory.   The only one who does seem to see him is Denise, the only other person in his class with no friends.  Denise, who is known to be chronically depressed, even suicidal at times, and who shuns every other human being’s attention.  As Dory works hard to decipher just who he is in the context of his odd, cynical, intellectual family, he learns that one doesn’t need a PhD to be kind or to find justice.

This is a quirky coming-of-age novel that will no doubt wind up on your local indie foreign film screen one day soon. Simultaneously dark and sardonically comical, the story goes where you least expect it to go.  And the characters are wonderfully unconventional.  Dory himself is so painfully awkward and is so utterly endearing that the reader feels for him from the very first line.    Even his siblings, who are narcissistic and socially objectionable, are still quite funny and entertaining.  Even Denise, who is depressed, isolated, and cynical, offers her own brand of glib commentary on the world which is often sarcastic.

On the other hand, it is also a  quite serious commentary on the emotional crippling of the educational system.  While Dory finds himself surrounded by siblings who excel academically, he finds no one is able to mentor him in the area of emotional intelligence.  This he has to figure out on his own, and this is his greatest challenge.  His siblings are all emotionally suppressed, have no friends and have never learned to express or cope with emotions in any healthy way.   Ironically, it seems they look to the youngest of them all – Dory – as an example.

I actually really liked this book and I believe you will hear more about it and its author.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”  So begins Dana’s story of how she became the “secret”, bearing the burden of being the offspring of her father’s infidelity.  At first her mother, Gwendolyn, has consoled her with the knowledge that Dana and Gwendolyn know about the other wife and daughter (Laverne and Chaurisse) but Laverne and Chaurisse do not know about them.  They even take little outings to surveil Laverne and Chaurisse, just to see how they live.  But as Dana grows older, she seeks love in other places just to fill the void that her father has created.  And as the novel progresses, we also learn that Chaurisse has not gone unscathed by the crime committed by her father.  The question is, how long can James maintain his lie?  How long until his two worlds collide?

This is a powerful novel, written in the voices of both daughters of a man who believes he can maintain a lie at their expense.  It exposes their raw emotions, mostly anger and frustration,  in their struggle to form their identities while they are given only a partial picture of who they are.  And the author portrays this so naturally it feels organic and authentic.

An interesting character in this story is Dana’s “uncle” Raleigh.  Raleigh was raised side by side with James, became like a brother to him, ultimately went into business with him and is almost like a shadow to him during the story.  He has some distinguishing features, but he seems to represent something like the conscience of James.  We yearn, in a way, for him to marry Gwen just to balance out the situation, but deep down we know that this will not truly fill the void or dull everyone’s pain.

While this story is painful, it is also full of passion and yearning and adolescent thirst for truth, which keeps it hopeful and fresh.  Tayari Jones is a true talent.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

For anyone who has ever loved rock music, in all its crazy glory, I give you Daisy Jones and the Six. Written, cleverly, like a Rolling Stone interview, the story chronicles the accidental marriage of Daisy Jones, a gorgeous, lonely, and gifted child of LA in the 60’s with the band, The Six, originally from the East Coast and starting to hit it big.  The personalities, the alliances, the drugs, the romance, the challenges and the drama – it’s all there in an exquisitely crafted story of their rise to fame, fortune and ultimately the realization of some painful truths.

This is just an incredibly fun book to read.  The characters are wonderfully portrayed, with such vulnerability and warmth that you fall in love with them every bit as much as they are falling in love with each other.  The band feels so real.  You almost remember the songs they sing, as if they are hidden somewhere in your brain and not something you’re reading for the first time.  And the ego clashes are reminiscent of every band that Rolling Stone has probably ever interviewed, but are still somehow interesting because we are meeting them behind stage, unplugged, often unmoored and raw.

The idea of writing this story as an interview is brilliant.  My first inclination toward it was, honestly, reluctant.  I thought it might actually get old quick.  But it works!  it actually feels so honest and somehow more powerful, with the narrative coming from each of the characters themselves.  It is quite an unusual technique.

You will laugh, you might cry – but you will absolutely love Daisy Jones and the Six!