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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Joy for Beginners

Joy for Beginners
Erica Bauermeister
Putnam, 2011

When Kate was ill with cancer, six women joined forces to help her in various ways as she underwent surgery and treatment. When she was given a clean bill of health, she invited the women for dinner, where she shared her fears about a river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with her daughter. When the group urged her to go despite her misgivings, Kate issued each of them a challenge: if she does the one thing that has always terrified her, each of them will also do one that that they would find difficult. Even though some of the tasks seem slight, easy or inconsequential, Kate’s wisdom in the assignments become apparent as each woman attempts to do the one thing that, it turns out, proves to be the most difficult.

Each chapter is each woman’s story of doing the assigned task. They range from the simplest (learning to bake bread) to the most difficult (taking a trip overseas). As each woman attempts to do what Kate has asked, they learn something of themselves that enables them to move past whatever event or situation has stopped them from learning and growing as human beings. Kate herself goes on the river trip with her daughter, and finds the experience to be even more life-changing than the cancer was.

Some might think this novel to be overly sentimental and simplistic, but it actually proved to me to be uplifting and refreshing. It is not dreary or sad, as many cancer stories are. Instead, it shows the power and rewarding benefits of friendship among women. Who else but a close friend can see us as we really are, and in fact, confront us about our own issues in a loving and accepting way? This book will remind you to call your best friend and have a good chat about things that aren’t really important, or things that are, just because you can. And if you can’t – it will make you miss her with all your heart even more than you did before.


Other novels by this author:
The School of Essential Ingredients (2009)

Other titles you may also enjoy:

Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg (1994)
Ann Stanley, an unhappily married nurse, narrates this story of Ruth Thomas, a woman dying from cancer who has left her husband, even though it means leaving her son, too.

Always and Forever by Kathy Kelly (2007)
Their satisfying lives compromised by such challenges as career changes, parenting responsibilities, and difficult relationships with men, three Irish women gather at a spa and receive assistance from a fourth woman who helps them to rethink their priorities.

Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons (1993)
Looking back on her ninety years of life while waiting for the arrival of her children and grandchildren at the family summer home, Maude Chambliss recalls a life of wealth, friendship, love, and loss.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Birds of Paradise

Birds of Paradise
Diana Abu-Jaber
W.W. Norton, 2011

Teenage runaway Felice has called her mother, Avis, to arrange a meeting. Avis is a self-employed pastry chef who uses the opportunity to create her daughter’s favorite cookie, a confection that takes hours to make. Felice’s father Brian disapproves of his wife agreeing to this meeting, to making the cookies, to getting her hopes up, again, after so many disappointments. Felice has not lived at home since she was 13 years old.

Told in alternating chapters, this is the story of a damaged family. The setting is pre-economic downturn Miami, when money flowed easily and real estate was king. From our standpoint of looking back from the future, however, we know that the financial good times will soon come to an end, causing as much havoc and turmoil as the hurricane that is fast approaching the city. Felice is soon to be 18, a legal adult, and she realizes that it may be time to grow up and take ownership of her emotional problems instead of running away from them. Meanwhile, Stanley, the older son and brother who has been neglected ever since her sister first ran away, is struggling himself, but he has trouble asking his parents for help. In fact, he has given up on asking his parents for much of anything.

As the storm approaches Miami, the family struggles to connect, both physically and emotionally. Avis is on the verge of a breakdown, Brian considers an extra-marital affair, Stanley feels powerless to help himself or his business, and Felice discovers love while almost losing her own life. And yet, through all the drama, I could not warm up to any of these characters. Felice’s reasons for running away, not revealed until almost the end, just didn’t add up. Avis and Brian have real pain, but Avis just can’t let go and Brian has totally given up. Stanley was the only one I could sympathize with – he was a true victim of the situation.

Sometimes I feel uplifted after reading a good story; other times the story doesn’t move me. This is one of those times that I am left shrugging my shoulders, feeling neither good nor bad about the plot, characters, setting, or tone of this title. It was just okay – not memorable but not horrible either.


Other novels by this author:
Crescent (2003)
Origin (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Dearly Departed by Elinor Lipman (2001)
The untimely death of her single mother, Margaret Batten, brings Sunny back to small-town King George, New Hampshire, the scene of her unhappy adolescence, where she discovers old family secrets and a possible half-brother she never knew she had.

Trespass by Valerie Martin (2007)
Chloe Dales's growing dislike of her college-age son Toby's romantic relationship with Salome Drago, a Croatian refugee who is a seductive but somehow toxic blend of the old world and the new, threatens to alienate her from her tolerant husband and besotted son.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (2005)
In a tale spanning twenty-five years, a doctor delivers his newborn twins during a snowstorm and, rashly deciding to protect his wife from their baby daughter's affliction with Down Syndrome, turns her over to a nurse, who secretly raises the child.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Story of Beautiful Girl

The Story of Beautiful Girl
Rachel Simon
Grand Central, 2011

Lynnie Goldberg and Homan Wilson, escapees from the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, are on the run. It is 1968 and Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl in the pouring rain. Not knowing where else to go, they knock on the door of Martha’s farmhouse, hoping for shelter. Martha is a retired schoolteacher and widow and lives alone. Even though Lynnie and Homan are unable to communicate with Martha, she is quick to comprehend two things right away: they need shelter and they care deeply about each other. She can tell by the gentle way Homan takes care of Lynnie and the baby and their caring glances at one another that they are in love. When the authorities finally track them down, Homan manages to escape but Lynnie is tied up and taken away. Lynnie, who hasn’t spoken in years, manages to whisper just two words into Martha’s ear as they take her away: “Hide her.”
Martha understands the concern and hides the child. Not knowing what else to do, she goes on the run herself, first to friends and then to former students. As the child grows, manages to sell the farmhouse and establish alternate identities for her and the baby. Homan, meanwhile, finds himself far away from the School as he eludes capture, with no idea how to find his way back to Lynnie. Lynnie misses Homan and waits patiently for him to come back to her, but as the years go by, she starts to lose hope.
This heartbreakingly sad and affecting story will stay with you long after you finish the last page. First of all, it is a tragedy that our nation’s developmentally disabled and hearing impaired children, men and women, were incarcerated in state run institutions. Secondly, the abuse they suffered at the hands of the hired staff was unforgiveable. Third, the love demonstrated between Lynnie and Homan, two people who could not talk to each other, is remarkable and touching. They never give up searching for each other despite all the miles and years that came between them. Their story illustrates that true love and compassion is not about the words we say – it is communicated in our looks, our actions and our hearts.

This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Deafening by Frances Itani (2003)
Left profoundly deaf from scarlet fever, Grania O'Neill grows up protected from the hearing world and learning sign language, but her life changes when she falls in love with Jim Lloyd, a hearing man, on the eve of the Great War.

Lottery by Patricia Wood (2007)
Having learned essential life skills from his grandmother that helped him overcome his low IQ, Perry finds himself without a caregiver at the age of thirty-one and wins a fortune by playing the lottery, a windfall that brings him more family than he ever wanted.

Eventide by Kent Haruf (2004)
A novel of small-town life in the high plains region around Holt, Colorado, follows the challenges, emotional upheaval, tragedies, and intertwined destinies of the local inhabitants as they cope with the changes they encounter.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Then Came You

Then Came You
Jennifer Weiner
Atria, 2011

The plans of four women are thrown together when an aging second wife, surgically enhanced and carefully falsified, fails to get pregnant for her rich husband. India, not her real name, has been attempting pregnancy through in-vitro procedures even though she suspects she’s too old at 43 (not her real age) to get pregnant. Marcus, her truly generous and nice husband, will do anything to make her happy, so they decide to hire a surrogate to have the baby for them.

Jules is a senior at Princeton. Beautiful and smart, she is willing to donate her eggs so that she can pay for her addict father to finally get the help he needs at an in-patient facility known for their success rates. But Jules still finds herself wondering about any babies that her eggs have produced, especially after she discovers true love with her best friend.

Annie is the mother of two little boys. She and her husband own an old farmhouse out in the country badly in need of repairs. Frank, her husband, does what he can to provide for the family but his TSA job just doesn’t pay enough to cover all the bills. Annie decides to become a surrogate in order to help the household, but Frank doesn’t want to accept help if it means he has to watch his wife carry someone else’s baby.

Bettina is Marcus’s grown daughter who suspects that her father’s new wife is not all she pretends to be. She hires a private detective to investigate India, but when she discovers how rampant the lies are, she finds herself reluctant to break her father’s heart again. Bettina’s mother was the one to leave the marriage, and Bettina misses her terribly now that she has moved to Arizona to join a cult. Not knowing what else to do, she holds onto the information that the detective discovered, and soon discovers a new relationship herself.

When Marcus, the soon to be father, has a heart attack, India panics and flees the country. She only wanted the baby in order to bind Marcus to her and provide a little insurance policy – she can’t be a single parent. Bettina is shocked to discover that she is now the baby’s guardian in the absence of both father and mother. Annie finds that she misses the baby she carried for nine months, so she helps when she can. And Annie, the egg donor, also becomes involved in caring for the child, who Bettina names Aurora. In this situation, it truly takes a village to raise a child.

Despite my initial worries that Jennifer Weiner was trying to channel Jodi Picoult with this story straight out of the newspaper, I enjoyed this book. I’ve always loved Weiner’s writing, from the very first (and best!) novel. I love her humor, her strong female characters, and the very real conflicts they face. This book is no different, except that there isn’t quite as much humor as her first (and best!) novel. The plot may have been plucked from the headlines, but the characters have real life struggles, make mistakes, and try to fix them in the end.


Other novels by this author:
Good in Bed (2001)
In Her Shoes (2002)
Little Earthquakes (2004)
Goodnight, Nobody (2005)
Certain Girls (2008)
Best Friends Forever (2009)
Fly Away Home (2010)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Watermelon by Marion Keyes (1998)
When her husband, James, leaves her after she delivers her first child, Claire retires to her family in Dublin, where she slowly recovers from the experience, giving James a big surprise when he shows up again.

Get Lucky by Katherine Center (2010)
After an inappropriate email causes Sarah Harper to lose her job, she goes home to Houston to spend Thanksgiving with her sister, Mackie. After years of trying, Mackie has given up on having children. As Mackie prepares to sell the nursery on eBay, Sarah gets an idea that may fix everyone's problems.

Wives Behaving Badly by Elizabeth Buchan (2006)
Minty Lloyd is now the second wife to her husband, Nathan--but she is shunned by his friends, despised by his grown children, and haunted by her very much alive, and quite reborn, predecessor Rose. Yet after a shocking phone call, Minty finds herself united with an unexpected ally--the woman she once betrayed.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick DeWitt
Ecco, 2011

Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired gunmen who have been commissioned to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm, with Charlie as lead man for the first time in their history together. Eli, the younger brother, does not much care for this turn of events, especially when they run into problems along the way. As the brothers deal with an attacking red-heared bear with a bounty on its head, a double crossing saloon owner and his murderous cohorts, a contact that vanished, plus various characters who thwart their progress along the way, Eli and Charlie come to some conclusions about their chosen lifestyle.

The rough and tumble Old West comes to life in this darkly comic, sometimes gruesome and often violent western novel. Poor Eli has decided during this job that he lost the taste for killing. Charlie has his work cut out for him to keep Eli to task, but he knows what to say to fire Elie up to killing. Charlie, on the other hand, has a taste for brandy that often derails their schedule, so Eli has time to spend with a local woman or with his broken down horse. There's a sadness and wistfulness to Eli and Charlie's story, an unspoken wish that their lives had taken a different route but it's just too late to make any changes. As we learn, however, it's never too late to choose differerently, especially when things don't go exactly as planned. As you can tell, this is a different kind of Western novel. It may appeal to those of us who don't normally pick one up.


Other novels by this author:
Ablutions: notes for a novel (2009)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Appaloosa by Robert Parker (2005)
Arriving in a small nineteenth-century western town where the sheriff has been killed and the residents are at the mercy of a renegade rancher, lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch face an adversary who works by playing psychological games.

The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard (2005)
Having made his name by killing notorious bank robber Emmet Long, Deputy U.S. Marshal Carl Webster embarks on a dangerous search for Jack Belmont, the son of an oil millionaire who dreams of becoming Public Enemy Number One.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985)
Former Texas Rangers leave their unsuccessful cattle business when they hear of good opportunities in newly opened territory.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka
Knopf, 2011

This is the story of some Japanese women who came to the United States in the early 1900s as mail order brides for Japanese men. Some of the men were laborers, some were shop keepers. Some of the men were rich, some were poor. Some treated their new wives with love and respect, others were abusive and demanding. Some of the new husbands and wives deceived each other with their pictures and letters sent before marriage, and so were disappointed when they met. Some had open and honest relationships. Most had children who grew up to reject their ancestry and history and heritage. Almost all found themselves classified as the enemy after the events at Pearl Harbor. A few disappeared, never heard from again. Many lost their homes and their businesses when they were relocated to the camps.

Told in beautiful and descriptive language that combines the experiences of many women into one voice, this novella may perhaps be more accurately described as a prose poem. Interestingly, it is full of contradictions. It is one story, yet it describes many women’s experiences. It is an emotional and painful account of the suffering and disappointment that the women experienced, yet the overall tone is detached and impersonal. There are very few names and no specific characters mentioned, yet the author gives the impression that the women know each other and have relationships as the years go by. As readers, we don’t get to know any of the women very well, yet we learn a great deal about the lives of the immigrants through their voices gathered together.

This is a very remarkable book that I highly recommend, especially if you enjoy the power of a perfectly chosen word. I was particularly impressed with the unique voice of the collective Japanese women and the skill that Otsuka used to create one narrative voice with many characters. It is mesmerizing and memorable.


Other novels by this author:
When the Emperor was Divine (2002)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)
When artifacts from Japanese families sent to internment camps during World War II are uncovered during renovations at a Seattle hotel, Henry Lee embarks on a quest that leads to memories of growing up Chinese in a city rife with anti-Japanese sentiment.

How to be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (2010)
Entreated to visit her ancestral family in Japan in place of her ailing mother, Sue uncovers family secrets that influence her life in unforeseen ways, offer insight into her mother's marriage to an American GI, and reveal the role of tradition in shaping personal choice.

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (1998)
Strange things happen in the love lives of two women--one a Japanese-American filmmaker from New York, the other a Japanese housewife--linked by a Japanese television show sponsored by an American meat exporter.