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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Jack by Marilynn Robinson
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN 9780374279301
Hardcover, $27, 320 pages

One of the few reasons I don't mind the end of summer and the move into fall is that publishers tend to release so many great books in the fall season. This year, many book publication dates were moved from the spring and summer to the fall due to COVID-19, so there seem to be an abundance of great books. In the upcoming posts, I'll cover a few of the great ones I read.

Years ago, I fell in love with Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead. Told in the voice of an older minister in 1950's Iowa, John Ames writes to his very young son, telling him his life story and sharing his beliefs. Her second novel set in the small town, Home, is a retelling of the prodigal son parable with John Ames' godson, Jack Boughton, (son of Ames' best friend, Reverend Robert Boughton) having returned home after twenty years, now an alcoholic petty thief who spent time in prison.

Robinson returns to this story in Jack, where we go back to the time that Jack spent away from his family. After being released from prison, Jack ends up in St. Louis, where he meets a young Black schoolteacher, Miss Della Miles. He helps Della pick up papers she dropped in the rain, and walks her home. She  mistakes him for a reverend by his dress and manner and invites him into her home for tea. 

Jack is entranced by Della, but knows that nothing can come of this, he is not worthy of this fine woman, not to mention that the differences in their races makes a further relationship possible. After he finds her accidentally locked in a cemetery (where he has been sleeping as he is homeless and jobless), they spend the evening together talking and opening up to each other. 

Much of the novel is taken up with this evening. They share a love of poetry, both have fathers who are ministers, and both are outsiders in society. Jack fights this feeling of falling in love, but Della finds herself more willing to give in to her growing feelings for this complicated, flawed man no matter the cost to her.

After parting in the morning, Jack decides that he will try to become worthy of the man that Della believes him to be. He gets a job in a shoe store, then as a dance instructor, but the hardest obstacle for him to overcome is his alcoholism.  

Robinson writes the interior life of characters so insightfully. We thoroughly see Jack, even when he can't see himself clearly. Every time the lure of alchohol calls to him, we want to reach through the page and beg him not to drink. We want him to be the better man that Della believes him to be. Jack explains himself in this passage:
"I have not actually chosen this life. The path of least resistance is not a choice, in the usual sense of the word. I know it appears to be one. But when the resistance you encounter on every other path seems, you know, indomitable, then there you are. I'm sure I have been too easily discouraged."

In 1950s St. Louis, a interracial relationships are forbidden. Della's roommate reminds her of everything she could lose- her job as a teacher, the respect and love of her family in Memphis, even her freedom- if she persues a relationship with this man. Although set seventy years ago, the race issue is relevant today.

Jack is a quiet book, like all of Robinson's books. We spend most of the book inside the head of Jack, a complicated character who may remind us of someone in our own lives. The writing, as always from Robinson, is exquisite. Reading Jack will make you more compassionate towards others, a good thing in this increasingly contentious age of only engaging on divisive social media. I will be rereading Home now with a fresh eye to what happened to Jack while he was gone.  I know I will never forget him or Della. I give Jack my highest possible recommendation.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Two terrific tales of marriage

Reprinted from auburnpub.com:

Marriage is a topic that is ripe to be explored in depth in a novel, and this month’s Book Report features two novels that take a look at marriage in two different stages.

Sue Miller’s latest entry into fiction is Monogamy. Graham and Annie have been married for thirty years, a second marriage for each. Graham owns a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Annie is a photographer, currently working on a show in a local gallery that she hopes will revitalize her career. 

They met years ago when Annie attended the grand opening party of Graham’s store. Annie married young and divorced her husband after six years. Graham’s wife Frieda left him because, although she agreed to the idea of an open marriage, the reality of living it devastated her.

Graham and Frieda remained friendly, coparenting their son Lucas, now working in publishing in New York. Frieda and Annie became friends too, and Frieda is always a part of their family celebrations. Annie and Graham’s adult daughter Sarah lives on the west coast.

Graham was a big man, taking up a lot of space. He was always the life of any party, gregarious, making everyone feel important. Annie was quieter, some people may have even thought her a bit cold. Her career as a photographer, seeing life through the lens of a camera, suited her personality. They have a happy marriage, enjoy each other’s company, share in each other’s successes.

On the eve of Annie’s big show, she wakes up to find Graham dead in bed next to her. We watch as Annie has to deal with the multitude of things that need to be taken care of, as well as her own grief.

At a memorial service for Graham, Annie discovers that he had been unfaithful to her. This guts her, and causes her to reassess her entire marriage to Graham. Why did this happen? Was he incapable of fidelity?

Miller deftly explores the history of a marriage and loss, and the reader becomes completely absorbed in the emotional aftermath of Graham’s death. We see Annie and Graham through the eyes of their daughter who says “My mother is always okay. That is the division of labor in my family. My mother holds it all in, my father lets it out.” 

Monogamy is a quiet book, with characters who are so well drawn we feel as though we know them. Sue Miller is at the top of her game with this beautifully written story.

If you want to read a novel for Hispanic Heritage Month Angie Cruz’ novel, Dominicana is a great one. Fifteen year-old Ana lives in the countryside in the Dominican Republic in 1964. Her family struggles financially, and when an older local man, Juan Ruiz, has his eye on her, Ana’s mother is thrilled. 

Juan travels to New York City, where he has an apartment and works many jobs. Ana’s mother believes that if Ana marries Juan, it will enable the entire family to emigrate to the United States where they can make money and have a better life.

Ana does not want to marry Juan, but has no choice. She must do this for her family. She travels to New York where she is expected to cook and clean for Juan and his brother Cesar, who also lives with them. She speaks no English, and is not allowed to leave the apartment.

We see 1965 New York City through the eyes of these hard working immigrants. Juan and Cesar line up daily outside a hotel, hoping to be chosen as day worker in the kitchen or as a bellboy. They work two or three jobs, often in a single day, to make enough money to send home to fulfill their dream of opening a restaurant.

Ana does not love Juan, he can be abusive and demanding. She is lonely, and wants to learn English and get a job to have her own money. She’s not allowed to make any friends.

When there is political upheaval in the Dominican Republic, Juan returns home to protect his property. That leaves Cesar to keep watch over Ana. Cesar allows Ana more freedom, and she experiences life in New York on a different level. She and Cesar become closer as well.

It’s interesting to read an immigrant story set in this time period, to see New York City in 1965 through their eyes. It’s not a story often told. This celebrated book is a Good Morning America Book Club pick.

Monogamy by Sue Miller- A

Published by HarperCollins

Hardcover, $28.99, 352 pages

Dominicana by Angie Cruz-A

Published by Flatiron Books

Trade paperback, $16.99, 336 pages

Friday, September 25, 2020

Friday 5ive- September 25, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my interest this week.

1)  Last Friday night came the sad news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. She was particularly beloved in New York City, her hometown, and it really hit so many of us very hard. I visited the new Women's Rights Pioneers statue in Central Park, featuring the likenesses of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, and there were tributes to RBG that people had left as well.

2)   Also on my walk, I saw people working on landscaping at a large apartment building on the Upper East Side and it looks so beautiful, it really brightens up that street.

3)  This week I had my 500th ride on my Peleton bike. One of big treats is to take a live class and hope that the instructor will give you a shout-out. I thought I had a pretty good shot with 500 rides, but there are so many people who hit milestones riding now, it can be difficult. I was excited to get my shoutout from my favorite insructor, Jenn Sherman, and it was during a Yacht Rock ride (my favorite musical genre) and my favorite yacht rock song, She's Gone, by Hall & Oates. I took the class again today and laughed out loud when I saw the closed captioning had my name as Bye Chick Die- (it's really BikeChickDi, a play on my BookChickDi blog name). The scary name sounds like I belong to a violent biker gang.

4) I watched Unbeliveable on Netflix this week, an eight episode miniseries. Merritt Wever and Toni Collette play police detectives in Colorado who are the trail of a serial rapist. Kaitlyn Dever plays one of the first victims, a young woman who has come through the foster care system, and this attack and its aftermath nearly unravel her life. Merritt Wever is one of my all-time favorite actresses, she never hits a false note. The subject matter is very difficult, but the writing and acting are superb. It's based on a true story as well. The link to the trailer is here.  

5) I read three books this week. M.O. Walsh's novel, The Big Door Prize is about a small town that becomes mesmerized by a machine in the local grocery store that takes a DNA sample and gives you a reading on your potential- what you should be doing with your life (musician, magician, cowboy,
etc.). It turns the people in the town upside down, including Douglas, a schoolteacher, and Cherilyn, his wife. It's an interesting, unique premise for a novel. 

Darin Strauss' new novel, The Queen of Tuesday, is based on a family story. His grandfather once attended a party given by Fred Trump, and he met Lucille Ball at the party. Strauss' imagination takes off from there as he imagines a torrid affair between his grandfather and the most popular woman in television. We see a different side of Lucille Ball, and I liked the inside look at the creation and execution of I Love Lucy more than the affair. 

I finished the week strong with Yaa Gyasi's new novel, Transcendent Kingdom. Gifty is the daughter of two Ghananian immigrants who settle in Huntsville, Alabama. Her mother works long, hard hours as a home health aide, her father returns to Ghana when she is three years old. Gifty's brother Nana becomes a standout athlete at his school until he is injured and becomes hooked on painkillers. It's a beautifully woven story about family, faith, the life of immigrants, racism, and science (Gifty becomes a neuroscientist studying addiction). Anyone who has dealt with addiction in their family will recognize the pain of this family. I highly recommend it. 

Stay safe, socially distant, wash your hands, wear a mask, and make sure you are registered to vote.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Friday 5ive- September 18, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week. This week, it's all about entertainment, most of it streaming.

1)  When I first came to NYC about a twelve years ago, I bought a ticket to Miscast, a fundraiser for MCC Theater. Juliana Marguiles was the honoree, and I got to meet Chris Noth while getting a drink at the bar. (Yes, he is that handsome.) The entertainment at Miscast consists of performers singing songs from Broadway shows that they would never get cast for- usually men singing songs usually performed by women, and women singing songs tradtionally performed by men. This year, the gala was online, and free so many more people got to see the amazing performances. My favorites were Norbert Leo Butz singing "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar, Phillipa Soo singing "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific and Heather Hedley closing the show with a powerhouse performance of "Endless Night" from The Lion King. I entered the drawing to win a table for 10 for the 2021 Miscast, if I win, maybe I'll take you with me! You can see the performances on MCC Theater's YouTube channel here. (While you're there, check out this classic Miscast performance of "Cell Block Tango" from Chicago) 

2)  HBO premiered a series of five monologues titled Coastal Elites, written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Jay Roach. Bette Midler's portrayal of Miriam Kessler, a retired Jewish schoolteacher who gets into a scuffle with an obnoxious man was so brilliant. She looked directly into the camera, speaking to a police officer investigating the incident, and it was as if she was speaking for me and a whole lot of other people. Give her an Emmy! Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson and Kaitlyn Devers also had monologues that represent what so many people are feeling today, they were all so fantastic. The group was interviewed on Wendesday by CNN's Alyson Camerota about the show for the 92nd St. Y in New York City, and it was interesting to really get into the creative process behind the show. You can see the trailer here.  

3)  Paula Pell is having a well-deserved moment. First, her Qubi series, Mapleworth Murders, debuted in August. It's a satire of Murder, She Wrote and the 12 ten-minute episodes are nothing short of comic perfection, with lots of great guest stars, like Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph. Now the new Peacock streaming platform premiered the 3rd season of the comedy A.P. Bio, about a Harvard philosophy professor who ends up back in Toledo, Ohio, living in his deceased mom's home, and teaching AP Bio at the local high school (played by Glenn Howerton of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Seasons 1 & 2 were on NBC, and so hilarious. The show has moved to Peacock for season 3, and the first episode of the new season is comedy gold. Pell has a physical comedic performance that would make Lucille Ball proud. Patton Oswalt plays the principal, and he and Pell are a comedy team for the ages. I hope there will be a season four. 

4) My husband likes action movies, so we caught up on season 2 of Amazon Prime's series Jack Ryan, based on the Tom Clancy character from his series of novels. John Krasinski plays CIA analyst Jack Ryan who gets involved in the murder of his US Senator friend while in Venezuela. There is lots of action, and Krasinski and Wendell Pierce, who plays CIA agent Jim Greer, make a great team, with their humorous quips in between action scenes and political intrigue. Michael Kelly, from House of Cards, joins them as well as the Chief of Station at the American Embassy. I'm looking forward to season 3 of this one as well. The trailer is here

5)  I finished one book and I'm in the middle of two others. Sue Miller's Monogamy tells the story of Graham and Annie, a long married couple. Graham owns a bookstore in Cambridge, and Annie is a photographer readying for a gallery show. Graham is a big, gregarious man, who always loves to talk to people and put them at ease. When Graham dies, Annie has to deal with her own grief and more when she discovers that Graham was unfaithful. It's a beautifully written story. 

I'm in the middle of Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Jack, the fourth in her series of books about the residents of Gilead. Jack is the prodigal son of the Reverend Ames Boughton, now living in St. Louis during WWII after a stint in prison. He falls in love with school teacher Della Miles, a black woman. We watch their romance begin against all of society's conventions. It's a very quiet story, one that you don't rush through, but slowly read  to savor the gorgeous language. 

It'a Hispanic Heritage Month, and I just started Angela Cruz' Dominicana, about fifteen year-old Ana, who leaves her home in the Dominican Republic to marry an older man and move to New York City in the 1960s, in the hopes that she can bring her family to the United States. I'm enjoying this look at immigrants in New York City during this time period in history. Good Morning America chose it for their book club.

I guess it was a week for the Jacks and novels with one word titles.  Stay safe, socially distant, wear a mask and wash your hands everyone.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Two Tales of Hollywood

The Comeback by Ella Berman 
Published by Berkley ISBN 9780593099513
Hardcover, $26, 376 pages

A Star is Bored by Byron Lane
Published by Henry Holt ISBN 97881250266491
Hardcover, $26.99, 352 pages

I recently read two novels set in the world of Hollywood- Ella Berman's The Comeback and Bryon Lane's A Star Is Bored. After reading these two intriguing books, I'm not sure that I'd want a career in Hollywood.

What sets Berman's novel apart is the strong first person narration of the story. It begins with 23 year-old Grace Turner being recognized by a fan in the CVS store where she is picking up her mother's diet pills. Grace is known as Grace Gold, teenage star in director Able York's most successful movies. 

Grace was discovered by York as he was looking for a young teen to star in his movie. He brought Grace and her parents from their home in London to Hollywood, where he convinced her parents that he could make Grace a star- and he did.

York became her mentor and she became his muse. She bought her parents a home in nearby Anaheim, but became estranged from them as she appeared in all of Able York's movies over the years. He became a celebrated auteur, and she was his muse. She did the whole young Hollywood thing- drinking, drugs, marrying young.

Able and Grace had a falling out, and Grace's latest attempt in film without Able left her confidence shaken. She slunk back to her parents, where she has been hiding out for a year, eating dinner on TV trays with them and hiding from life outside.

Able is set to be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award and Grace is asked to to present it to him. She sees this as an opportunity to tell the world what happened between them, but does she have the strength to do so?

Grace's voice is so vivid in this intensely personal story. We see Grace as her star is rising, and the aftermath of her destructive behavior. Moving back and forth in time gives this story a jarring juxtaposition, letting us in on Grace's state of mind. Given the reckoning in Hollywood recently, this is a timely story. I recommend The Comeback, and look forward to Ella Berman's next book. The Comeback was a recent Read With Jenna pick.

Bryon Lane had a job as an assistant to actress Carrie Fisher, and in the write-what-you-know line, his novel A Star Is Bored tells the tale of Charlie, a young man who longs to leave his job on the overnight shift at a local television news station. He gets the opportunity to become the personal assistant to Kathi Kannon, daughter of a Golden Age of Hollywood star, and a star in her own right, having created the role of Priestess Talara in the worldwide phenonomon series of science fiction/action movies. 

Kathi has a drug problem and suffers from bipolar disorder. She has wild mood swings, spending days in her bed alternating with expensive shopping sprees and trips to Vegas. She gives Charlie a highly inappropriate nickname (she needs her own Human Resources Department), and he is charge of waking her each day with her medications and Diet Coke.   

Charlie organizes Kathi's life (the label maker gets quite a workout), and spends a lot of time keeping her out of trouble and on track writing the book she has already spent the advance money on. As difficult as she is, she is also raucously funny, and there is never a dull moment with Kathi. They form a friendship, but as anyone who has dealt with a drug addict knows, that bond gets tested. Charlie discovers that his life is not his own, but belongs to Kathi, day and night.

A Star is Bored is hilarious, and also moving. Kathi and Charlie have a sweet relationship until they don't. Kathi's mom (the Debbie Reynolds doppleganger) fiercely loves her daughter, but all her efforts to help and protect her don't work. 

If you have read Carrie Fisher's memoir Wishful Drinking or saw the HBO version of the stage show based on that, you will get an extra level of enjoyment from this endearing novel. I recommend it.

Hollywood is a tough place people.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Remedios by Deborah Clearman

Remedios by Deborah Clearman
Published by New Meridian ISBN 9781734383508
Trade paperback, $18, 228 pages

Two of the most intense television series I have watched are Breaking Bad and Ozark. Both deal with seemingly average people who become involved in the drug trade, dragging their families into the situation.

Deborah Clearman's novel, Remedios, is the literary equivalent of those two series. Fernando is a college professor, living with his wife and three children in Guatemala. They have a comfortable life, although Fernando borrowed money from a loan shark to renovate their home, and the payment is due. Fernando is unsure how he will be able to repay the money.

A childhood friend, Memo, shows up on his doorstep after nearly thirty years. The last time Fernando saw Memo was when they were teenagers, at a meeting that was violently attacked by the military. Fernando and his brother escaped, but Memo was caught and forced to become a soldier.

Memo now works for a dangerous Mexican cartel, and he comes to Fernando with a offer:  let them build a meth lab on his property. The money Memo will give him will enable him to pay off the loan shark, and  no one but Fernando needs to know what is going on. Fernando resists, but ultimately he agrees.

They concoct a story that Memo is building a cleaning supply manufacturing plant on Fernando's property, and Fernando is able to live with that until he discovers that his 14 year-old son Felix is working with Memo. 

Fernando's younger wife Sandra has also become entranced by Memo, bringing him food and spending time with him. Memo encourages Felix and Sandra's affections for him, pulling them deeper into his web. Fernando feels helpless and impotent to save his family. 

Remedios is a taut, intense novel that had my stomach in knots. Like Breaking Bad and Ozark, you watch as good people make bad decision after bad decision, wanting to warn them away from the danger. Reading Remedios also gave me a better understanding of the history of the civil war in Guatemala in the 1980s, and how drug cartels were able to use that to gain a foothold in that country.

If you're looking for a book that will get your pulse racing, a quick read at only 228 pages,  put Remedios on your list. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Deborah Clearman's tour. The rest of her stops are here:

Tuesday, September 8th: JulzReads

Wednesday, September 9th: Instagram: @bookin.good

Thursday, September 10th: Thoughts From a Highly Caffeinated Mind

Friday, September 11th: Helen’s Book Blog

Monday, September 14th: Barks Beaches Books

Tuesday, September 15th: bookchickdi

Thursday, September 17th: Kahakai Kitchen

Monday, September 21st: Literary Quicksand

Tuesday, September 22nd: Jessicamap Reviews

Wednesday, September 23rd: Girl Who Reads

Thursday, September 24th: Instagram: @mentallybooked

Friday, September 25th: Instagram: @my_read_feed 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Chance of a Lifetime by Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets

Chance of a Lifetime by Jude Devereaux and Tara Sheets
Published by MIRA ISBN 9780778309932
Trade paperback, $17.99, 336 pages

I'm not a big reader of time travel novels (although one of my favorite books of 2019 is Lisa Grunwald's Time After Time) but something about Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets' novel Chance of A Lifetime called out to me.

Agon and Samael are two angels who work for the Department of Destiny. They summon the soul of Liam O'Connor, an impoverished petty thief from Ireland in 1844 who fell in love with Cora, the daughter of wealthy landowner. Cora was engaged to marry Finn Walsh, and their child was destined to help the world.

But Liam disrupted those plans when Cora fell in love with him and broke off her engagement to Finn. Because of that, "Cora's soul has never found peace, and in each new life she has been given, she has been afraid to fall in love in" with Finn and fulfill her destiny to help the world. (I hope this is not responsible for all of the problems we are having in 2020.)

The angels send Liam to Providence Falls, North Carolina in the present day where Cora is a police investigator. Finn Walsh is there too, a "reserved and somewhat stuffy" defense attorney who has a crush on Cora. But Cora is not interested in Finn.

Cora's father calls her to tell her that he has found a roommate to replace the woman moving out of Cora's apartment. His name is Liam, and he is the newest member of the police department, where he will be Cora's new partner.

If Liam wants his soul to enter heaven, he has to convince Cora to fall in love in Finn and fulfill their destiny. The only problem is, now that Liam sees Cora in the flesh again, he realizes he still has feelings for her. What if she feels the same way?

Liam has to learn all about life in the 21st century- cars, cell phones, computers, etc.- and now he is on the other side of the law, which is amusing. People he knew in 1844 Ireland are also here in Providence Falls- his fellow petty thieves, and the wealthy married woman he had an affair with is now a wealthy married woman who wants to have an affair with Liam. 

Chance of A Lifetime is the first novel in the new Providence Falls series, so the reader is introduced to the small city and all its residents. It's an enjoyable read, a cross between TV's The Good Place and Diana Galbadon's Outlander novels. Can Liam sacrifice his happiness to achieve his mission? You'll have to stay tuned, because there is no answer to that question in this novel. That may be my biggest criticism of this charming novel, it ends rather abruptly with a lot of unresolved issues. I'll happy return to Providence Falls to find out what happens next.

Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on their Women's Fiction & Romance Fall Reads Blog Tour.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Friday 5ive- September 11, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week. Labor Day was Monday and that means the unofficial end to summer, even though the weather outside my window says otherwise.

1) Today is 9/11, and every year I listen to the roll call of names of people who died during the terrorist attack on that day 19 years ago. This year, the names were not read in person at the 9/11 Memorial, but we heard the recording of names from the 9/11 Museum in New York City. Below is a photo I took at the museum last year of the wall of rememberance. Each blue square is a different shade and represents a soul lost. We must never forget.

2)  I saw this box labeled "trampoline" waiting in the package room of our building this week. I wonder who has room for a 12 foot trampoline in an apartment? At least they don't live above me, I checked.

3)   I watched the movie Strange But True on Netflix this week. It's based on the book of the same name by John Searles, and even though I read and loved the book, I was still gasping at the turn of events in the movie. The story is about a young woman, played by Margaret Qualley (who is wonderful here), who visits the family of her high school boyfriend who died five years prior. She is nine months pregnant, and claims that her dead  boyfriend is the father, which seems impossible and infuriates the mother of the young man, portrayed brilliantly by Amy Ryan. The cast is outstanding, with Brian Cox, Blythe Danner, Greg Kinnear and Nick Robinson all doing stellar work. 
Strange But True

4)  I started a new podcast this week, from the same people who brought us Serial. It's called Nice White Parents, and it tells the story of a Brooklyn public school in Cobble Hill, where the student population is mostly students of color. The principal worries that with only 30 students registered for the 6th grade that the school will close. She encourages parents from the neighborhood, who are white, to send their children to the school and when nearly 100 of them do, it changes the dynamic of the school when the new parents form a committee separate from the PTA to fundraise for a French language program. I just started it and it is riveting and thought-provoking, I can't wait to keep going. 

5)  I didn't do a lot of reading this week, just two books. The first one is Seinfeld- A Cultural History by Paul Arras. The author looks at the iconic show in the context of what it means to our cultural history. He includes his ranking of each episode, which is fun to look at and decide if you agree or disagree with him. 

The second book is Rachel Beanland's novel, Florence Adler Swims Forever. Set in 1934, it tells the story of Florence Adler, a young Jewish woman from Atlantic City who is training to swim the English Channel, inspired by Gertrude Ederle. Her older sister is on bedrest at the hospital due to complications during her pregnancy. When tragedy strikes, the family grieves and the secrets that are kept from each other threaten to tear them apart. The story is told from many viewpoints, including Florence's 8 year-old niece Gussie, her father, mother, brother-in-law and swim coach. It's a deeply felt family story, and based on the author's own family history, which adds a fascinating layer to this wonderful novel. 

I wish all the teachers, students and parents a safe, healthy, and successful school year ahead. See you next week!

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Three Books About People in Crisis

Reprinted from auburnpub.com :

This month’s Book Report features three new novels about people each facing a serious crisis. Each author has written characters that we can empathize with and care about.

Ellen Marie Wiseman’s The Orphan Collector is set in 1918 Philadelphia, during the Spanish flu pandemic. Thirteen year-old Pia lives with her German immigrant family- Mom, twin baby brothers, while her father is away fighting for his new country in Europe in WWI as part of the U.S. Army. 

The war has just ended, and thousands of people attend a celebratory parade, including Pia, her mother and brothers. Soon, people all over Philadelphia are dying from the Spanish flu. It is a gruesome death, and people fear seeing the black fabric tied to doors indicating a death there.

Pia is left to care for her baby brothers, but soon the food runs out and she must venture outside to find supplies. When she faints and comes to in the hospital, it is days later and Pia is panicked about her brothers.

Unbeknownst to Pia, her neighbor Bernice sees her leave and hears the babies crying. Bernice   is bereft after losing her beloved baby boy to the flu, and makes a decision that will define her and Pia’s life going forward.

Pia ends up in an orphanage, filled with children who have lost their parents to the flu. Even though she is trapped, she cannot stop searching for clues as to what happened to her brothers. 

Bernice meanwhile has come upon an idea. Angered at the immigrant families she believes responsible for the deadly flu, Bernice uses the children in orphanages to fulfill a greedy plan.

When Bernice and Pia’s paths cross, can Pia discover what happened to her brothers? 

The Orphan Collector is a brilliantly written, riveting piece of historical fiction. Every detail feels so authentic. You will find yourself dropped right into 1918 Philadelphia, and feel like you are right alongside Pia as she never gives up her quest to find her brothers. Fans of Christina Baker Kline’s The Orphan Train and Lisa Wingate’s “Before We Were Yours” should put this next on their reading list.

Helen Cullen’s The Dazzling Truth takes place on an Irish island near Galway, where Murtagh and Maeve are raising their four children. From the moment Murtagh saw Maeve at Trinity College, he was smitten. 

Maeve was from America, studying acting. Murtagh made ceramic pottery, and they both loved art. He was given the opportunity to apprentice with a famous potter, and Maeve gave up her dreams to follow him and raise their family on the island.

Maeve also suffered from severe depression and anxiety. She would spend days, sometimes weeks in bed, and nights wandering the countryside. As her children got older, they didn’t understand what was happening, as it was never discussed openly. 

The story moves back and forth in time so we get to see Murtagh and Maeve’s courtship, and their lives of the children as they grow older. The characters are so well drawn, you care for each of them, and ache for each of them as Maeve’s illness affects them. Your heart will break for them.

In Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, With Or Without You the main characters deal with a physical illness. Stella is a 42 year-old nurse who longs to settle down and have a child with her longtime love Simon, a rocker who has one last chance to make it in the music business with his bandmates. 

When Stella falls into a coma, it upends both their worlds, as well the life as Libby, her best friend, a doctor who is caring for Stella. Libby becomes close to Simon as they bond together working and hoping for Stella’s recovery. Simon also becomes close to Stella’s mother who moves in with him. Their relationship is so touching.

We see the story through Stella’s eyes as she is in the coma, and Simon who gives up his last chance to stay by her side. When Stella awakes, her world is completely different. She has a new artistic ability that eventually brings her the fame that Simon had once hoped would be his. 


Caroline Leavitt excels at writing characters facing a crisis not of their doing, and this is her best book yet. 

If you want to get lost in a good book that makes you feel something for the characters, take you out of your everyday sameness, each one of these three is a great choice.

The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman- A+

Published by Kensington Books

Trade paperback, $16.95, 400pages

The Dazzling Truth by Helen Cullen- B+

Published by Graydon House

Trade paperback, $17.99, 336 pages

With Or Without You by Caroline Leavitt- A

Published by Algonquin 

Hardcover, $26.95, 288 pages


Friday, September 4, 2020

Friday 5ive- September 4, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post about five things that caught my attention this week. I can't believe that it is September already, and yet this year seems to have lasted about five years. Does that make sense?

1)  While we were upstate, we ate at a fantastic Mexican restaurant, Armadillo, in Kingston NY. I had a frozen margarita, which was frosty cold and refreshing. For my entree, I chose the Taco Platter special, which is two tacos (I chose chicken) and a delicious side of refried black beans and rice. It was some of the best Mexican food I've had, and I highly recommend it. They space their tables more than socially distant,a nd they have a Taco Trailer in the parking lot for atmosphere. If you find yourself up that way, make this a stop. 

2)  Like the rest of the world, I was shocked and saddened by the death of actor Chadwick Boseman. He died at the age of 43 of colon cancer, which he had for four years, and his loss affected so many people, especially young children who saw him as their first Black superhero on screen in Black Panther. I first saw him as Jackie Robinson in 42, which the Paramount channel showed on Monday night. It's such a powerful performance that led him to stardom. 

3) I found a new podcast that I'm enjoying, it's called Smartless, hosted by friends Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes, three very funny actors. Each week, one of the three invites a guest who is a surprise to the other two and they have a free-wheeling discussion. There are seven episodes up so far, with people like Kamala Harris, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and my favorite so far, Melissa McCarthy. It's funny, irreverent and relevant. 

4)  This week BookReporter.com celebrated its 24th anniversary with a special Zoom featuring nine of their fantastic team of book reviewers talking about the books they loved most. It was an interesting discussion led by Carol Fitzgerald, the founder of Book Reporter. You can watch it on YouTube, and if you don't get their weekly newsletter on Fridays, you don't know what you're missing. 

5) I got in lots of reading this week. Ella Berman's novel, The Comeback, is about a young actress whose life has been destroyed by the man who was her mentor. It's a very strong first person narration, and it was a Read With Jenna pick for August. 

Historical fiction fans will love Jennie Fields' Atomic Love, about a female scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and three years later is asked by the FBI to spy on her former lover, a fellow scientist they believe is a Russian spy. I could not put this one down. 

In addition to being a fantastic mystery writer, Laura Lippman writes wonderful essays, and she has a new book out, My Life As A Villainess, filled with her smart, crisp essays about life as an older mother, her first job as a reporter in Waco, Texas, and how the first few hundred pages of the seminal TV show, The Wire, ended up on her computer. (PS- she's great on Twitter too.)

Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets team up for a romance novel, Chance of A Lifetimethat's The Good Place meets Outlander, about Liam, an Irish thief from 1844 who falls in love with Cora, the daughter of a wealthy man. Cut to present day when Liam is summoned by two angels to return to Earth to help Cora fall in love with Finn, the man she was fated to be with in 1844 when Liam came along and messed up the plan. Cora has lived many lives since 1844, but she has never fallen in love with Finn, which is her destiny. Can Liam fix this? It's the first book in a new series, Providence Falls. My full review publishes on September 14th. 

Stay safe, socially distant, wear a mask and wash your hands everyone. We'll see you next week.