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.

 

 

 

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Alice has recently arrived in Kentucky from England, with high hopes and romantic ideas on how she’ll begin her new life with her very handsome husband, Bennett. Sadly, she’s been quite disappointed so far. Expecting to embark on newlywed adventures, she instead finds herself living with not only Bennett, but with his very demanding and intrusive father, who has been dictating exactly everything that goes on in the home. When Alice hears about a chance to work delivering books to the folks who live in the more remote areas nearby, she sees it as her only means of escape. Only as she becomes more committed to this reputedly “radical” venture does she begin to see a way out of the hold her new family has on her.

Unknowingly, I stumbled upon yet another book about the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky in the 1930’s and 1940’s – and this story was just as gripping as the last (the last one being The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek). The plot builds and surprises and we root for Alice in a way I wasn’t expecting. The characters are strong but multidimensional. Even Alice, who appears meek at first, grows into herself and emerges as a hero in many ways. Other characters may start strong and break, just as in real life.

What is beautiful is the bonds that build amongst the women of the packhorse library – those who work together to create the team who deliver the books to the people of the area. They are as different as they could be: different ages, different abilities, different backgrounds. Yet, they work together as a team and respect each other’s talents. Their bond is what gets them through.

This is a beautiful story that depicts an interesting moment in American history – the packhorse librarians of Kentucky. It is also just a beautiful story.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

When Astrid witnesses the sudden death of her long-time acquaintance, it shakes her to her core. She has a sudden realization about her own life, how fragile that might be. Astrid has never been a nurturer, never exuded much warmth or patience, but she’s working on that now. And as she struggles to make up for the past, she begins to really learn who her children and grandchildren have become, almost in spite of her.

While this is not high literature, nor a deeply moving novel, it does serve up an amusing, light summer read while sitting under your umbrella at the beach. The characters are vague but interesting enough – and the plot is not exactly complex, but it holds your attention until the last page.

It does speak to both the highlights and the pressures/challenges of living in a small town.  While it might be easier to have the familiarity of being surrounded by those one has grown up alongside, there are also the expectations, the assumptions that come along with that. Astrid’s children have each been coping with these pressures in their own ways, sometimes effectively and often dysfunctionally. One of her children fled the town because of this pressure.  It seems that Astrid had never taken this into account until some of the crises in the story emerged.

This is definitely NOT a MUST READ, but it’s an appropriate book to pack along with your bathing suit and towel…

The Art of Losing by Lizzy Mason

Harley’s only wish is that she could unwind the clock, just reverse time to the moment before she made the impulsive decision to leave her best friend’s party before assuring her sister had a ride home with someone other than her own drunken boyfriend, Mike. Maybe then her sister, Audrey, would not be in the Neuro ICU in a coma, having just barely survived a near-fatal car accident. And although it was not Harley at the wheel, she feels so much responsibility for the whole mess, it may as well have been. Overwhelmed with anger and guilt, Harley muddles through Audrey’s recovery, all the while sorting out issues around her relationships, substance use, and how to manage and express her own very complicated feelings.

Written as a young adult novel by an author who has experienced addiction and rehab treatment herself, this novel seeks to provide a wake-up call for those who try to deny that those in their teens can be addicts, and/or that just alcohol alone can be a drug that can endanger lives. Many minimize the risks of teenage binge drinking that is seen both in high schools and on college campuses, but it in fact takes a huge toll on both the physical and the psychological health of those affected (and often those around them as well) – and alcohol intoxication is a cause of 30% of fatal car accidents in the US. Only when one takes treatment seriously, whether through residential or intensive outpatient rehab or through regular group meetings like AA, can one begin to find a path toward recovery.

Unfortunately, while the message here is crucial, the story itself is part after-school special, part soap opera. The characters are a bit flat and over-privileged (every teen has their own car, somehow), and the plot just misses the mark in plausibility. For example, we learn that somehow, just when Harley realizes her boyfriend is really a dick, she discovers that her literal “boy next door” is really the love of her life? Really? Way too pre-packaged, in my opinion. Why does she need another boyfriend anyway? I would have loved to see her come to an understanding of herself without another guy in the picture, all on her own. That was a bit disappointing…

In spite of my misgivings about the delivery, this novel still raises truly valuable messaging around addressing mental heath treatment, particularly addiction and substance use. If it can sway even one young person to confront their own issue, to turn to someone for help, then the author will have accomplished tremendous good.

 

 

 

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Osla and Mab come from very different backgrounds, but suddenly find themselves on a train headed toward the same, mysterious destination. What with the war on, who knew what they’d be brought in to do to fight the Nazis, who seem to be speedily and frighteningly making their way toward London.  What awaits them is a challenge beyond their imaginations, and an opportunity to prove that they can do more than be “witless debs.”  What also awaits them is a profound friendship that brings its own challenges and heartbreaks as well.

This is an amazing yarn of historical fiction that will keep you on the edge of your seat from the very first page to the last. Do not be daunted by its length, because it will glide by in a heartbeat and you’ll only wish it had lasted even longer (although you will be happy that it didn’t because you’ll finally get some sleep!). The writing is brilliant, with the story structured by flipping back and forth from during the war to just after the war, creating a knot of suspense that keeps getting tighter and tighter throughout. The characters are strong and vulnerable and we come to love them, even when they are imperfect and rash. And even if some of the final scenes are a bit implausible, we believe them anyway, because the drama is right there where we want it – no, need it – to be.

And we learn quite a bit about how the war was actually won against Hitler and his army. It wasn’t necessarily just about sheer force, but rather intelligence, breaking code. Somewhere in a small town outside London, on a compound where secrecy was maintained above all else, codebreakers – often women – were employed around the clock to break the codes the Germans were using to communicate their war plans to each other.  In addition, this base was utilized to enable false messages to be sent back, to mislead the enemy.  Apparently, this was done by those sworn to secrecy on threat of treason to the crown. 

This is another MUST READ – you won’t regret it, I promise!

 

 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Cussie Mary is never more satisfied than when she is able to carry a new bit of reading material to a beloved patron, whether it be a young, aspiring forester or an elderly, near-blind seamstress. She loves her mission as “Book Woman”, working as a Pack Horse Librarian here in Kentucky, and does not wish for any other role in what others might perceive as a lonely life. Pa, though, has a different idea. He seems hell-bent on finding her a husband, and continues to light the courting candle, much to her dismay. What ensues opens up her very narrow world to unimaginable possibilities, both dangerous and hopeful.

I adore how literature can shine a spotlight onto pivotal moments and impactful individuals in our history, instructing us without ever having us enter a classroom. In this dramatic read, we learn about the US initiative to encourage literacy in the remotest parts of Kentucky, bringing books to those who would otherwise never have had access. These brave women (and some men) of the Pack Horse Librarians walked or rode out on their own mules or horses for miles each day, delivering donated books, magazines, and newspapers to folks living in the rough, mountainous terrain of Appalachia. Children and adults who barely had enough to eat gained sustenance on what they learned from this program, and these women touched the everyday lives of their patrons in so many ways.

We also learn here of the Blue families of Kentucky as well. These families have a rare blood disorder called methemoglobinemia, which gives the skin a blue appearance. Cussie Mary is so afflicted and this sets her apart. She is shunned by white and black folks alike, many afraid to even touch her for fear of catching it (it’s not contagious), thinking it something from “the devil” or worse. She is treated with scorn and derision by so many. Only those able to see through color see her for the kind, caring person she is. How universal is this concept, eh?

There are many tender moments here, woven through the story, but I believe what is missing here is humor. While many books deal with significant issues and enlighten us about historical moments of note, there are, intertwined in them, moments of levity to alleviate the tension. I felt there were not enough of those here. There is an almost relentless tone of tension here that is somewhat wearing. A perfect novel has a bit more balance, in my opinion.

This is still an important story to share and I believe a worthwhile read. Just prepare to be anxious – you can’t avoid it here!