The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Feeling deflated by a failed marriage, Laura finds refuge in her new position — assistant to a very kind, older gentleman, the author, Anthony Peardew.  As they work together in his tastefully opulent home, she gradually comes to learn about his history, his heartbreak, and the secrets that have been kept hidden for many years.  When he dies and leaves his estate to her, he also leaves the legacy of his secrets to be reconciled by her, as his final gift.

This is a sweet story.  The characters are endearing and there are multiple threads that entwine to keep the plot loping forward. It is engaging and imaginative in many ways.

On the other hand, one can argue that once again, we are reading about a woman being rescued by a man.  Laura’s life has been ruined by one man, and she is paralyzed; her only savior comes in the form of another man, her generous boss.  Moreover, she cannot be fully complete nor can the mystery of the secret of the estate be resolved until she is married to yet another man.  Really?

Will we never get beyond our Prince Charming fixation?

That said, the book is light and amusing and, like all good fairy tales, has a happily-ever-after ending that wraps it all up in a neat bow for the reader.

If that is for you – go for it!

 

 

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

 

Bryan Stevenson is a graduate of Harvard Law School who, after graduating, went down South to work to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, which began as a legal nonprofit defending those who found themselves unjustifiably on death row, but expanded to defending others who were also victims of our imbalanced justice system here in the U.S. The primary thread that runs through the book is the story of Walter McMillan, an African American framed for the murder of a white woman in a laundromat in Alabama.  And while Walter’s story is compelling and tragic in and of itself, the many others that Stevenson shares with us along the way similarly intrigue and horrify in their revelation of the truth of how racially biased our criminal justice system is and has been for decades.

I honestly feel like this book should be required reading for every American.  Whatever we think we know about racism and bias – it’s just not enough.  Racism is ugly, and painful and insidious and pervasive and it infects our law enforcement, our criminal justice system, and our politics and even our day-to-day interactions with others.  This book reveals the magnitude of the problem. Thousands of individuals have had outrageous sentences for smaller crimes and so many children – 13 and 14 years old! — have been given extremely harsh, long sentences really just because they were of color.  Most of these “criminals” were victims themselves, whether of their circumstances, of trauma they’d experienced, or of their poverty that prevented them from obtaining suitable defense.

I think that Bryan Stevenson is one of the true heroes of our time.  He has stood up for the impoverished and for those who have had no voice and given them a voice.  He has bravely fought for those who would have been killed because of inhumane death penalty laws (one could argue – as I have, that all death penalty laws are inhumane).

I have not seen the movie, but I believe the movie could not possibly have all the details that this book provides and I always believe the details are crucial.  Especially in an important book such as this one.

This is absolutely a MUST READ!

P.S.  It’s been awhile since a book has made me cry the way this one has.  There is one particular vignette that really threw me, for its beauty and its power.  If you read this book and come upon a story about a chocolate milkshake, you’ll know when it was that I cried the hardest…!

 

 

An Undisturbed Peace by Mary Glickman

Abraham has come from England in the early years of American settlement to work with his uncle who has sponsored his transport  He is surprised by the reception he receives:  he is thrown into the barren barracks with the other poor, desperate workers and sent to peddle the wares of the business to surrounding folks, to the best of his ability.  Abe, as he comes to be known, begins his journey as a traveling peddler by landing surreptitiously in the home of a stunning, fiercely independent, Cherokee woman.  She takes him in briefly, cares for him, and although amused by him, does not return his sudden, youthful passion.  As he seeks to reconcile this woman’s past and discover where her heart truly lies, he grows to understand not only himself,  but the complex stratification of the society he sees growing around him.

My first impression of this story was actually incredulity – that a story was being written about a Jewish man falling in love with a Cherokee woman hundreds of years ago in this country.  It just sounded to me an unlikely scenario, given the insular world of the Jews at that time.  As I read further, what I came to appreciate was that it was a clever vehicle through which to describe the era of the Trail of Tears.  This dark period in our American past is when President Andrew Jackson authorized the displacement of thousands of indigenous people from their land and moved them in caravans westward.  This atrocity  was committed under perilous conditions, and thousands of Native Americans perished because of disease, starvation, unwieldy weather conditions and a lack of adequate provisions from the American government.   In telling this story through the eyes of Abe, a Jew and an outsider trying to find where he fit in among the various strata of peoples, there is often a delineation of the pecking order and a redefining of that pecking order as Abe continues to struggle with it.  Where do the slaves of the Cherokees fit in?  Where do the slaves of the Whites fit in?  Where does he fit in relative to them all?  As he is sorting this all out, we see how the groundwork of all of it is being sorted out for future generations – and how some sought to fight against it but, sadly, lost.

So, at first glance, I wasn’t sure about this book, but as I continued through it, it gained more and more value to me and I appreciate it for its very powerful messaging.  I feel it educated me and gave me insight into this bleak blot on our American past.

 

 

 

At Risk by Alice Hoffman

at risk

Polly and Ivan are concerned about their daughter, Amanda.  She’s a gymnast and has an unusual diarrheal illness for the past couple of weeks.  Their pediatrician, who knows them well, can deduce that this is not a good sign and from her low white blood cell count he is extremely worried about the possibility of cancer.  But not in a million years is he expecting that she’d be positive for AIDS, having contracted it from a blood transfusion after a complicated surgery for appendicitis 5 years prior, before blood was screened for the virus.  The paranoia and alienation that the whole family experiences is unexpected and devastating, possibly even worse than the actual diagnosis.

This book, published in 1988, reminds us of the experience that so many went through when HIV first appeared in the 1980’s.  With ads on TV for HIV medications so commonplace and ordinary today, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, there was mass victimization of those who were infected with the virus.  Children infected via intrauterine transmission or from blood transfusions were sometimes not allowed in school because of fears of casual contact transmitting the virus to others, even when there was early evidence that this was not possible.  Millions of infected adults suffered not only from the disease but from the indignities of being ostracized from a society who rejected them because of their disease.  And we have still not cured it.  [The reason for this has probably more to do with financial incentive than the science – it is more beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to produce medications that sustain patients with the disease than to cure it.  Just as with cancer. But I digress…]

As for the book, I found the story compelling, but the writing a bit awkward.  It is told in the present tense, which I often dislike.  More importantly, though, the narration also shifts from one character to another almost as if they are passing a hot potato from one to another, to another.   This shift occurs so frequently and over so many characters that it dilutes and distracts from the actual plot and it is harder to become attached to the truly important players.   We just can’t feel that sorry for everyone.  So while the story is tragic, it does not cut quite as deeply as it might.

Nevertheless, At Risk is a timepiece and tells a part of the story of our bitter history of the HIV epidemic that is important to remember.  We think of HIV as a disease of adults only, but there were thousands of children affected by the disease as well.  And still are today.

Still Me by Jojo Moyes

Louisa is taking the plunge – she is reinventing herself, moving to NYC, starting a job as a personal assistant to a Fifth Avenue society wife.  It may seem daunting at first, but she will do this.  She will overcome her tiny room and her ugly uniform.  She will adjust to her insecure and capricious boss and the dysfunctional family who now employs her.  And surely everything will be ok when Sam, her paramedic boyfriend from back home in England, comes to visit – won’t it?  Louisa is determined to make this work – although it may cost her more than she ever imagined it would.

This third in the Me Before You trilogy is a book that I believe is most valued for its lovely characters.  While the plot may be a bit predictable and a little cliche, the characters feel like your comfortable old slippers that you’ve just found behind the dust bunnies under your bed.  Louisa is caring and honest to the bone.  When she returns home to her quirky and loving family, it feels like we are all coming home.   And when she’s with Sam, even when things are not going so well, we feel a tactile electric presence between them even when we know they are fictional characters.  Somehow, with words, Moyes is able to create actual warmth rising up from the pages of this book.  I think that is what I loved about it – the warmth.

So even though it is wrapped up a little too perfectly in its package, it is a sweet, fun read that makes you smile and root for the good folks.

I’d love to know if you agree!

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

As a young girl, Jane observes her brother and his girlfriends with a keen eye.  She watches her brother’s casual attitude toward women and sees how they hurt.  Later, Jane embarks on her own journey of relationships and it is no surprise that we accompany her through much growth before she is able to enjoy a healthy, honest, mutual relationship of her own.

This is actually a fun, lighthearted (for the most part), and entertaining read.  Some lines made me actually laugh out loud, because of the clever sarcasm that Jane slings at everyone around her.  Her character is kind and honest to the core, which is refreshing.  She is someone I’d absolutely want to be friends with – so much so, that when the book was finished, I felt I had lost a charming, new friend.

I only wish there had been depth to the story.  Yes we hear about her relationship with her father, which was so tender.   But she is utterly cavalier about her career, in spite of the fact that she is extremely bright and has such potential.  She is also more of a follower than we’d expect of someone with such a strong personality otherwise.  It feels inconsistent.  And disappointing.  But maybe I”m looking for too much or taking her too seriously.

The book, though, definitely served to put a smile on my face and that is worth so much at this moment in our collective experience in 2019.  So if you’re looking for some distraction from all the muck, this is it!

Enjoy!

 

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…!