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?

Windfallen by Jojo Moyes

Amazon.com: Windfallen eBook: Moyes, Jojo: Kindle Store

Lottie and Celia are almost as close as sisters – in fact, they’ve been raised as sisters for the past few years, although Lottie is acutely aware that she is only with the Holden family as long as they continue to generously support her. However, when she and Celia stumble into the acquaintance of new, artsy friends at the Arcadia estate, Lottie’s eyes are opened to a new kind of freedom, a new way of living that just might present opportunities – or perhaps danger. She is not quite sure.

Fast forward to the present time, and we meet Daisy, whose life seems to be falling apart. Her partner has walked out on her and her infant daughter, and she is left to sort out their upcoming project of restoring a controversial estate -yes, Arcadia. Will she be able to navigate this overwhelming time in her life? Her sister does not seem to think so, but she must prove her wrong. She has to…

Here is another winner by Jojo Moyes. While it did not grab me immediately, I will admit, it grew more and more magnetic with each chapter. It may be that Lottie’s character, while complex and reserved, was so, perhaps, hardened by her circumstance that she was ever so slightly less likable and therefore less relatable. On the other hand, once we meet Daisy, we find her so much more of an open book, her emotions so raw and apparent, that she breathes a sort of spark into the story, enlivening it with her heart and energy. We love her from the start and root for her until the end. Both characters are beautiful in their own ways, of course, but they differ in how relatable they are, I felt.

Moyes beautifully depicts an undertone here of the social conflict between old/conservative thought and new/liberal perspective. The setting is a small, harbor town in England, where everyone knows everyone and families have long-held histories of judging others’ families for past ills. Arcadia, with its modern design, intrinsically represents– both physically and by its inhabitants — possibility, openness, and forward thinking. The town, and its people, are always whispering against those in Arcadia, fearing what it represents and rising up against it in various ways. And Lottie, for her part, becomes caught in between, at once part of Arcadia and then fighting against it, because of what it represents to her at different junctures of her life.

This is definitely worth reading. I don’t think it rises to a “Must Read” but it comes fairly close!

Here All Along by Sarah Hurwitz

Here All Along - National Library Board Singapore - OverDrive

In this book, Sarah Hurwitz, better known for her speechwriting for the Obamas, takes us with her on her spiritual journey, her quest for a deeper understanding of Judaism than her elementary, religious school education had afforded her. After being re-introduced to Judaism through a course at a local JCC, she was inspired to delve deeply into various texts, study with various rabbis and other learned folks, and seek out various religious and spiritual experiences to try to identify what Judaism could mean for her. In doing so, she discovered that there was really no comprehensive book that did this for her, and thus, made it her business to try to create this one for others seeking to possibly do the same.

This is an impressive volume that I feel can help anyone who may be either contemplating becoming a Jew by choice, or really anyone just wishing to learn more about their own Judaism. Even having had the benefit of having studied various texts of the Talmud in my younger days, and have celebrated most of the holidays on a regular basis, there is always more to learn and I feel I did so from this book. She is contemplative and analytical about so many aspects of observance, about belief in God, about the beauty and significance of Shabbat, about the idea of what happens when we die – that there is truly something here for everyone.

I love that the language is accessible and non-judgemental as well. Having been educated in an Orthodox day school, I have experienced a heavy dose of Jewish guilt first-hand and it can be exhausting and alienating. Here, on the other hand, Hurwitz emphasizes the positive – the ethical values and actual responsibilities that Judaism expects of the individual toward those who are marginalized in any way, to animals and to the earth. And while observing the laws and rites and rituals remind us of who we are, the fundamental moral practices keep us grounded in our humanity and are likely what take us to a higher place spiritually.

I suspect this will be a gift I will consider giving to others. You may consider giving it as a gift to yourself!

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Untamed: Glennon Doyle, Glennon Doyle Melton: 9781984801258: Amazon.com:  Books

Just as a cheetah in a zoo is caged and trained to repeatedly chase after what she perceives as prey, so too are women caged in by society’s expectations and rules. We live and breathe in the norms around us — the standard of the thin, beautiful, smart, soft, modest, quiet, unassuming, and all-giving idea of the perfect woman — and cannot avoid striving for this, even when we are not even aware that we are doing so. This is what Glennon Doyle becomes aware of as she watches this caged cheetah pace back and forth and sees that she is not much different from this animal. It’s just a bit more complicated for her to work her way out of her cage, as it involves more than just her own life – it involves the lives of her husband and children as well.

In this memoir, Doyle reflects, through tiny moments and vignettes, about her metamorphosis as she moves from inside the cage to outside. She reflects back through her journey through recovery from bulimia and substance use, disentangling from a dishonest marriage, and tiptoeing through tightrope-like moments of parenting. Unlike many of us who struggle with similar issues, she also had to do this while living as a public figure, so had to also contend with answering to the public about this deeply personal process. What she learns, however, is to use her anger and her pain for good. She learns that rather than trying to escape these feelings, sinking into them actually can make her stronger.and push her into constructive action.

This is a powerful book that has many lines of wisdom contained within. Here are 2 of my favorite lines:

“If you are uncomfortable – in deep pain, angry, yearning, confused — you don’t have a problem, you have a life… You will never change the fact that being human is hard, so you must change your idea that it was ever supposed to be easy.”

and

“Maybe Eve [from the bible] was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”

This is an enriching read for both women and men. It will open your mind and your heart and force you to look both inward and outward.

Another MUST READ! (This list is growing so long!)

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 9780140186390 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Cyrus Trask is a man who has returned from his brief stint in the army with a wooden leg and an enormously embellished story about his military experience. It is this military persona who has raised his two sons, Adam and Charles, and his driving pressure which divides them as well. For while Charles pines for the approval of his father, Adam shirks away from it. And like many sibling rivalries, it is just too onerous to overcome. Their journeys are both tortured and enriched by the people they meet and we follow Adam in particular as he winds his way across the country to the Salinas Valley, where he ultimately settles and raises his own two sons.

I have been maintaining this blog for over 5 years and I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by a novel as I feel by this one. There is so much more than I could ever possibly understand in this story, so much significance and reference in this allegory that I can not even begin to appreciate the depth of it.

The underlying theme, to me, seems to be the struggle over good and evil impulses that exists in all of us. Steinbeck depicts some of the characters as being born to be destined to be purely one or the other, almost as if they do not have the choice over their path. Cathy, for example, is described as someone who is missing something essential, and we come to expect nothing but evil from her all throughout. Yet, there is discussion amongst three of the characters in the story about the biblical story of Cain and Abel about the possibility of having choice over what path a person chooses to follow – good or evil. Ironically, one of the participants is Adam, whose brother has assaulted him quite violently in an attempt on his life.

The unsung hero of this book is certainly Lee, who cares for Adam and his two sons. Because he is of Chinese descent, he experiences constant racism and is dismissed as being less-than, even when, in truth, he is far more intelligent and well-educated than most of the men around him. Yet he humbles himself to those around him and reveals to them neither his resentment nor his superior intellect, unless he is shown the respect he merits. Only then does he reveal his true self or his boundless wisdom.

If you never read this classic in high school or college, as I hadn’t, I would encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this extraordinary novel. This is absolutely a MUST READ!

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Image result for image of quiet by susn cain

Do you ever crave an escape from the noisy world we live in? Do you thrive in quieter settings, when you’re either alone with a good book or just engrossed in deep conversation with one friend? Have you worried there was something wrong with you when you panicked at the thought of having to speak up in a group of co-workers or a study group? If you have, you may actually be an introvert – and that is not a bad thing! While our society seems to prize the extrovert, the one who is the outspoken, confident leader — think Homecoming Queen, for example — it may be the introvert who really is behind so many of our major advancements (think Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple). It is the introvert who may allow for the quiet time during which thoughts can generate and percolate, and who may seek deeper conversation that brings people close. To be clear, it is not that introverts do not seek to be with others, but their connections are generally in smaller groups, on their terms, and more intimate. Nor is there a judgement that being introverted vs extroverted is better or worse – this is just a variation in personality style and a way of relating that can be every bit as effective. This book helps to identify and elevate those who are introverts to allow for all of us to prize introverts for their unique value just as we do extroverts for theirs.

An important impact of how society values extroversion is on our educational system. More and more, classrooms are being set up to promote group activity, with desks moved into circles rather than in the classic rows. This is great for those who function well in groups, the extroverts, but those who learn better with time to themselves, this may be more challenging. It is up to the teachers to appreciate and value both personality types and learning styles and to accommodate both.

I wish I had had the opportunity to read this book years ago. I learned so much about both myself and members of my own family through the pages of this book. I now understand why after caring for patients and interacting with my colleagues all day at work, all I am usually able to do by the end of the day is to get into bed and read. I realize that while I feel privileged to have the interactions I have both with my patients and my colleagues and I do feel passionate about what I do and enjoy it, it does take all of my energy to maintain the level of human interaction that it requires. At the end of the day, I need to refuel. Apparently, I am a true introvert.

This is an important book for so many of us to read. It gives us a much deeper understanding of our family, our colleagues, and our friends and enables us to value each of them for their unique styles of interaction. It may also give us a deeper understanding of ourselves. It certainly did this for me.

I recommend this as a MUST READ!

 

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

The Last Story of Mina Lee: A Novel: Kim, Nancy Jooyoun: 9780778310174:  Amazon.com: Books

It’s been two weeks since Margot has heard from her mother, Mina. She’s not answered her phone, nor has she called. And while they are not close, they are really each other’s only family.   So Margot now finds herself driving down from Seattle to Los Angeles, with her best friend, Miguel, to investigate. What she finds there leads her on a search for answers – answers about her mother’s fate, about her mother’s past, and about her own origins.

This is a book that I wanted to love. Mina was an immigrant of Korean origin who came to this country seeking what so many come to the US seeking – refuge from war, refuge from a painful, dangerous past, seeking opportunity. And like many, what she finds is obstacles. Barriers because of language, culture, and xenophobia. There is a universality to this story that I know is important to readers in this moment – important for us to understand the immigrant experience, to develop an empathy toward it, and to fully comprehend the urgency to open doors for immigrants in our country.

The story does accomplish this goal. However, it is so bleak and so unrelentingly tragic, that the reader develops almost a compassion fatigue while reading it. Mina’s life is so full of horror that it is almost unimaginable. The details that are leaked, almost like tears leaking from the eyes of someone afraid to show emotion, are devastatingly heartbreaking.  Mina is truly the hero of the story, as Margot comes to realize, but we are almost too exhausted to fully appreciate her.

There was also much in the way of repetition. Rather than introducing additional vignettes about the life of either Mina or Margot, or, more importantly, of their memories together while Margot was growing up, the author chose to recount the same scenes again and again from different perspectives. This sometimes added some depth, but occasionally grew old, and it would have added more, I believe, to create additional memories, shared times between mother and daughter, to give further insight into their complicated relationship. Margot was searching for more – and so was I as the reader.

I think this is an important story to tell. I wish I’d loved the telling of it more.

 

 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - By Lisa Wingate (Hardcover) : Target

Avery Stafford is finding her place, as she’s come back to the south to possibly carry on the family’s senatorial dynasty. When she visits a nursing home during a publicity event, she stumbles upon a woman she fears may hold a family secret that may threaten all that she and her family have worked for.

Then flash backward and we meet Rill Foss, a precocious 12 year old living with her poor but happy family in their river shanty. Rill is thrust suddenly into being responsible for her 4 younger siblings, for keeping them together and safe, and we watch as she is torn apart as adults attempt to destroy the family she fights to save.

As these two stories unfold side by side, we are breathless to know how they intersect.

This was an excruciating story to read at times, but at the same time, it was one that I could not put down. And while Rill herself is not an actual person, her story is based on historical events and children’s experiences that have been documented from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. That is, a woman named Georgia Tann, ran an adoption center in Memphis that actually bought and sold children as if they were property. Some of these children were actual orphans, but many were stolen from their homes, kidnapped while walking home from school, or worse. Some were placed in high profile homes, such as in homes of celebrities and politicians, but many were mistreated and hundreds are thought to have actually died under her care. She apparently made thousands of dollars from this business and had politicians and law enforcement in her pockets and avoided any legal confrontation to her dying day. Georgia Tann is the one non-fictional character in this book.

The writing in this book is gripping, particularly Rill’s story. On the other hand, it at times can be so utterly painful that some is extremely hard to read. It’s that same feeling one gets seeing a terrible car accident – can’t look but can’t look away. I personally have the hardest time hearing/reading about abuse of children and tend to avoid books like this. I have to admit, though, that the author handled it well. Just as it reaches a moment of peak discomfort, the story switches to Avery’s story line to lighten the mood and give the reader a chance to breathe. This is the only way I was able to get through, I think.

And in Rill, the author has created an extraordinary character. Though young, she is wise, cautious, kind, and she fights for her family with a passion that brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. There is no way not to love and empathize with this character.

This is an extraordinary tale, told well. Isn’t that all we want in a book???

 

 

 

 

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Lakshmi has been cultivating her business for the past 10 years, painting henna designs onto strategic body parts of the socialites of Jaipur, and doling out her herbal remedies on the side. Now if she could only seal the deal on her newest and most ambitious venture, she’d be able to finalize the details on the house that has come to symbolize her dream of full independence. But will the advent of a surprise family member put a thorn in her meticulously laid plan? How will she negotiate what she now cannot fully control?

This artistically drawn narrative embraces you from page one and holds you in its tender wrap until the very end. The writing is lyrical and poignant and all the stark colors and radiant spice of India spill out of its pages to give you the full sensory experience. At the same time, we are also privy to Lakshmi’s emotional turmoil as well, feeling connected to her experiences by this same sensorial thread. Her struggles become ours and her victories ours as well.

I do wonder why the author chose to restrict the narrating voice to only Laskshmi’s. In some ways it gives some mystery to her sister, Radha’s character, but I wonder if it might have broadened the perspective to tell the story from her sister’s side as well. Her sister was an intriguing character with a tragic past who we know from hearing her story from Lakshmi’s point of view. It might have added that much more depth to the story to give her more of a voice.

At the same time, I loved the characters. They were full of lovely and sage Indian adages, which I loved, and they exhibited such warmth and humanity. One of my favorites was Lakshmi’s little assistant, Malik. His impish but extraordinarily wise tendencies and steadfast loyalty were heartwarming, and Lakshmi warmed to becoming almost a maternal figure to him as the story progressed. Their relationship was subtly and tenderly portrayed.

There was so much to love about this book – I’d love to hear from you what you loved. Please let me know when you’ve given yourself the gift of reading The Henna Artist! It is, I would say, a MUST READ as well!

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Lillian and Madison go way back – having been roommates at boarding school in high school. And while they’ve not seen each other in years, they’ve been in touch, with Lillian offering minimal details of her dull unaccomplished life, while receiving letters from Madison filled with details of her picture-perfect marriage to the senator, her picture-perfect home and her picture-perfect little boy. Now, finally, as Madison has written to ask Lillian to visit because she has a favor to ask of her, she will finally see her again in the flesh. Will it be the same between them? Will Madison really be as perfect as she has always seemed? What is this mission she is being asked to do? Will Lillian be able to live up to Madison’s expectations? Will she be able to live up to her own?

Spoiler alert: The mission involves Lillian caring for two children who spontaneously combust. Yes, they burst into flames when they are upset. They are not harmed but they can cause harm to what may be around them. They are awkward kids and are clearly affected by this inconvenient trait, but inside, they are just kids. Lillian appreciates them for who they are, in spite of this trait, but others fear them and have difficulty accepting them for who they are.

While I appreciate a dramatic metaphor as much as the next reader, I just find this entire story too incredulous to swallow. Even beyond the flaming children, there is the history between Lillian and Madison that leads one to question why Lillian would come running at Madison’s behest. And then there is the question of how, with such a neglectful mother as Lillian is demonstrated to have, she has such a knack for mothering challenging children that no one else seems to be able to handle.

I think the author had an interesting idea that started well but went so beyond the boundaries of reality that it was no longer viable. And this, at least for me, was a disappointment. Much of the story felt ridiculous and I had difficulty envisioning at least parts of it. While I did develop affection for some of the characters, such as the 2 flaming children, I wondered always what the attraction was that Lillian had for Madison, as Madison was quite the selfish, and eternally self-serving character. And while the message clearly was one I respect – that we should all be appreciated for our weirdness and quirks as well as what we can do for others —  it was delivered at too a high price.

So, unfortunately, I have to say for Nothing to See Here – nothing to read here, at least in my opinion.