Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy: 9780307475480 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Although Noel is a grown man, he doesn’t think it odd that he still lives with his parents.  He goes about his business and they go about theirs.  In fact, they are so immersed in their own quirky religious observances and their own private anxieties that they are oblivious to the fact that Noel has been spending every evening sitting alone at (and often being kicked out of) the neighborhood bar. Life may have continued along this path, had Emily, Noel’s older cousin from New York,  not come to visit, in order to reconnect with her Irish roots. Emily quickly immerses herself in their little community and in her tactful way, provides Noel with the support he needs to confront his alcoholism. But will he be able to continue to be strong when he is confronted with the ultimate stressor of them all?

Within the pages of this entertaining novel by Maeve Binchy, we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters that are intertwined with Noel and Emily. We are invited into the fabric of their stories almost as if we are yet another one of their idiosyncratic neighbors ourselves, and we delight in their successes and worry over their problems as if they are our own.  Because they are depicted with such extraordinary detail, they are tactile and 3-dimensional.   Binchy’s imagination is in full evidence here.

While there is a bit of blind faith in believing this story and how it all plays out, it is worth the bit of the stretch for the fun of it.  Follow along and you will be entertained, you will laugh and worry, and you will not “mind Frankie” at all!

 

 

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams

Amazon.com: Our Woman in Moscow: A Novel (9780063090231): Williams,  Beatriz: Books

Ruth has always been more like an older sister than a twin to Iris, guarding her and shielding her to the extent that she could, especially after losing both their parents. When in Rome at the start of WWII, Ruth is fully aware that Iris is falling for this seemingly noble Sasha Digby, but she still believes it safest for Iris to leave when the Americans are evacuated. When Iris defies Ruth, she incises a rift between the sisters that cuts deep and festers for years. So why is it Ruth whom Iris calls upon when she is suddenly lost in the abyss of Communist post-WWII Russia? Will Ruth be able to save her sister this time?

Beatriz Williams never, ever disappoints. Using her chatty, familiar, and utterly engaging storytelling style she has created a truly suspenseful historical fiction masterpiece in Our Woman of Moscow. The secrecy and counterintelligence of the post-WWII era is a centerpiece of the novel and sadly, feels eerily relevant today, as we are still at war, albeit virtually, with suppressive, paranoid Communist regimes.

What I love so much about Williams’ books is that her female characters are strong women of substance and dominate the plots. And while there are a few good men, so to speak, there are many who are weak and vulnerable. Most importantly, here in particular, the men– and even some women– are duped primarily because of their preconceived notions about women. This is the sweetest part.

Another MUST READ by Beatriz Williams!

The Golden Child by Wendy James

The Golden Child: A Novel: James, Wendy: 9781510737914: Amazon.com: Books

Charlotte is what many would call a “queen bee.” She is always at the center of activity– pretty, smart, and sporty, with many friends who admire her — while her older, yet more sedate sister, Lucy, seems happy just to hang on the sidelines. Their mother, Beth, has been preoccupied with their upcoming return from New Jersey to Australia, so while there have been some signals of trouble, it hasn’t felt like much more than normal “girl stuff” to her. Could it be that she’s missed something enormous, even in her own daughter?

This is a disturbing and yet utterly engaging novel that anyone who’s ever known or ever been an adolescent girl can relate to. (And if you’ve ever been a mom of one, it tugs at your heart strings like few stories do.) It highlights the cruelty of the adolescent girl dynamic, the targeting of others for random imperfections, quirks, or non-conformities and the ostracizing of others for the least infraction of an ever-changing, “accepted” norm. In the age of social media, it is magnified a million-fold and it is irreversible. And horrifying.

The writing here is crisp and engaging and the characters, while somewhat stereotypical, are still extremely plausible. The author also utilizes the technique of incorporating blog posts from the characters to interject their innermost thoughts, which adds both a deeper dimension and a clever diversion to the plot. It’s an intriguing read that keeps you turning the pages – with a satisfying twist of events right up until the very end.

This is not a “MUST READ” but it’s quick, slightly disturbing, and yet intriguing one, if you have the time.

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett: A Novel: Lyons, Annie:  9780063026063: Amazon.com: Books

Eudora Honeysett is 85 years old and she is done. She is still of sound mind and, while she may have slowed down a bit, she still swims her daily laps at the community pool and she can still care for herself, by herself, thank you very much. She has seen how death can be an ugly, drawn-out affair, having witnessed her own mother’s experience- and that is not for her. So Eudora makes arrangements for her own plan of action. And she will not let anything deter her, not even her brand new and surprising friends, such as they are – the boisterous young neighbor called Rose, and the awkwardly emotional gentleman, Stanley.

This delightful novel is very much A Man Called Ove meets Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Eudora is a woman who’s had it tough, who has sacrificed much for others over the years, and at her older age of 85 is finally, if awkwardly, speaking up for herself. Much of her straightforwardness is cringeworthy, but, at the same time, it is so refreshingly stunning and true. And while one might expect her to repel others with her manner of speaking, she actually manages to endear them to her. (Could it be that our world is seeking this more genuine form of communication? That we are all just looking for honesty and kindness, rather than flattery or banality?)

The author has created utterly beautiful characters. Rose, Eudora’s 10-year old neighbor and adopted “BFF,” illuminates the pages of this novel. Her outrageously clashing fashion statements are clearly imprinted in the reader’s mind, and we cannot help laughing along as Rose enriches Eudora’s wardrobe (as well as her life) with color. As they are both unique in their own ways, they can appreciate each other for this – and accept each other as they are. And the relationship between them is tender and lovely and loving.

And, again, we meet another death doula! (I had never heard of this career path before the Picoult novel, and now here is the second novel with a death doula.) Once again, there is frank discussion about death and that one can choose to die with dignity and love and honesty instead of with machines and tubes and disconnection. So often, we are reluctant to face our mortality and so we do not plan for it. We deny the possibility, so we avoid discussing what we want. We do not complete the forms, we do not discuss our wishes. And then when it comes down to it, we end up where we may not want to be. The death doula can be the escort through this process of confronting those difficult conversations, those difficult moments, and to ease that time, for whenever it might arrive. For it will, of course, at some point, for us all.

This is a wonderful novel – on so many levels. Give yourself this gift – you will not be sorry!

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents: Wilkerson,  Isabel: 9780593230251: Amazon.com: Books

Written by one of the most impactful writers of our time, this non-fiction masterpiece is a stark comparison of the caste system that we live with here in the U.S. and that which has existed in India for hundreds of years and that which enabled the rise of the Third Reich in Germany during World War II. In order to elevate the white, European (Aryan) male in both the U.S. and Germany, it was necessary to establish a scapegoat, or a group of humans deemed less-than, in order to maintain an identity of being higher than. Likewise, in India, it was necessary to invoke religious inspiration to insist that men are created with certain intrinsic value based on the class they are born into, rather than natural, proven talents/abilities. Those at the top convinced themselves (and are continuing to convince themselves) that those at the bottom were content with their lot – or at least, that this was a god-given right which they enshrined. The myriad historical details and the personal accounts only serve to enrich Wilkerson’s thesis and drive her very painful and compelling point home.

While this book is not an easy one to read, it is one of the most important books that help explain this moment we are living in. It is clear that the presidency of Donald Trump was not a cause but a result of a growing fear of white men of losing their power over all others (including women of all colors, by the way) in this country. The continued efforts of Republicans to gerrymander and inflict restrictive voting laws are clear evidence of their flailing attempts to grasp onto those strangleholds they view as their birthright. And, as Wilkerson so rightly points out, these restrictive and terrifying laws and movements, and the rising of the Alt Right, Neo-Nazi, and white supremacy groups, hurt everyone – including the perpetrators – physically and mentally. We all lose.

We owe Wilkerson a debt of gratitude for her years-long, painstaking research and her gorgeous writing that encapsulates it.

Again, everyone MUST READ this book – if you want to understand not only caste but the fundamental history of our country and what is happening in our country today.

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

The Book of Two Ways: A Novel: Picoult, Jodi: 9781984818355: Amazon.com:  Books

Dawn, is a death doula, one who gently and passionately escorts those who are dying through this process. She is also married and the mother of Meret. Right now, though, she is on a plane, and all of that other stuff means nothing because this plane is going down and the only one she is thinking about is an old flame, Wyatt. What does this signify? Where does her heart really belong?

As usual, Picoult has managed to entangle her readers (or at least this one) in another intricately woven fabric of rich characters who walk off of the page and into your heart. As Dawn wrestles between her past, red passion for Wyatt and her current, serene comfort with her husband Brian, we feel this wrenching tension as if it is our own. When Meret struggles, we struggle. When her dying patient declines, we decline. The effect of this is that Picoult is able to render the reader sympathetic to every perspective, and as Dawn digs deeper and deeper into her quandary, we are more and more wedded to every possible outcome.

Likewise, as in her other books, Picoult has done her due diligence in her research – and here, it is on the topic of Ancient Egypt. Here we learn about this civilization’s many rites and rituals celebrating the dead and dying. We learn about hieroglyphic translations and the symbolism of the art inside their tombs. We learn that this art tells the story of the life of the individual who is buried there, and, moreover, how Egyptologists learn about the culture and society from these findings.

We also learn of a beautiful way of leaving this world. I’d never heard of a death doula, but it is a lovely idea and sounds like a wonderful luxury. To have someone to attend to the “business” of dying – not the medical issues, mind you — but the messiness of it. Taking care of your last wishes, ensuring that you get to see the people you want to see, ensuring your matters are wrapped up, having someone to hold your hand as you take your last breath. How precious is that.

This is yet another incredible work by Jodi Picoult. As readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan. Some argue that she has a formula in her work – and I see that, but for me it works. She develops intricate plots that challenge current complex issues, she creates beautiful, human, complex characters, and she writes them witty dialogue that always keeps me surprised. What more can you ask for in a novel?

SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK, DON’T CONTINUE READING!

I am curious to know what others think of the ending…. I was surprised and initially very disappointed at this one, actually. My first reaction was that it was a cop-out. However, the more I thought about it, the more I believe it was fully intentional and not just avoidance. Going along with the theme of “two ways” and Brian’s physics theory, maybe she imagines there is a way for her to be choosing both? Meret certainly got 2 dads here, as it happened, right? Or maybe it is just symbolic of how so many times, we want to go in 2 directions at the same time and decisions in life are hard. But these decisions often impact the ultimate direction of our lives in so many ways, setting us on a path that we cannot possibly foresee.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend: A Novel: Dicks, Matthew: 9781250031853:  Amazon.com: Books

Budo is Max’s imaginary friend, and therefore is visible only to Max and to other imaginary friends. He is able to slide through doorways and windows, appear almost real, and run quite fast, but only because Max has imagined him so. He has been alive longer than many of his fellow imaginary friends and he is quite proud of this fact – although it gives him some anxiety because he is aware that his time in existence may be limited. In fact, he’s watched others disappear. On the other hand, he knows that Max needs him more than many other kids need their imaginary friends, because Max, as Budo describes him, lives more on the inside than on the outside. As Budo narrates Max’s story, we see how truly dependent on Budo Max is – and yet how eventually, Budo empowers Max to save himself.

What begins with the feel of a children’s book actually builds into quite an insightful and even suspenseful novel. Telling the story from the perspective of the imaginary friend gives the story an air of innocence, lulling the reader into a false sense that all will remain benign. This provides that much more of a jolt when Max, who is clearly caught unaware, does get entrapped in a very precarious situation.

This is also a subtle and powerful way to communicate the experience of a child who likely carries the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder, formerly known as Asperger’s. Budo speaks for Max as he describes what he likes and doesn’t like, how he has an easier time with routine, how he cannot tolerate too much stimuli, and that he prefers not to be touched. He describes that he prefers to be alone or with Budo, and that he’s ok with being alone, even if his parents are worried by this. Budo also describes the frequent discomfort of others around Max. He highlights the few, and one teacher in particular, who really make an effort to get to know who Max is. He loves this teacher because she focuses on Max’s strengths rather than his shortcomings, how he is special, rather than how he is different.

This is a beautiful story, with very unique narration, and with a surprising crescendo. Something quite different, for sure!

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!