LaRose

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Louise Erdrich is a gifted writer who brings life to stories, particularly stories about Native Americans. Her novel, The Round House, was one of the best recent novels I read, so I was excited when LaRose was available through my local library.

The writing was exceptional as always, but the story moved slowly for me. I have also been struggling to find time to read, so that was probably a factor as well.

LaRose is the youngest child of Landreaux and Emmaline Iron. After Landreaux accidentally kills a neighbor’s son LaRose becomes the who becomes the peace offering. Peter and Nola Ravich are devastated by the death of their son, Dusty, and out of desperation accept LaRose. LaRose then becomes the healer, which he has actually been destined to do as one of a long line of LaRoses endowed with power and spiritual qualities. LaRose becomes the protector of Nola who is suicidal after her son’s death, he becomes the bridge between his new “sister” Maggie and her parents and he remains the little brother in his own biological family, splitting time between the Iron and Ravich homes.

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There are many other characters who you learn about throughout the novel, but it is the generations of LaRoses that are the most interesting and compelling.

In some of the other reviews, it was noted that the novel is set in 1999. I didn’t really notice when it was set. I knew it was in “modern times,” but the story isn’t tied to a year or a time period.

If you like Louise Erdich, I think you will like LaRose, however if you are new to her, I would recommend Round House.

Note: I finished this book on March 20th. I was just a little slow in finishing and posting my review.

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Lilli de Jong

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Janet Benton is a local author in Philadelphia and will be appearing at the Collingswood Book Festival in October, so I planned to read her novel, Lilli de Jong, beforehand. Then I read some good reviews of her first novel and received some positive reactions from friends, so it moved up to the top of my TBR pile.

I read it quickly over the past week and would recommend it to most readers and highly recommend it to local readers.

We meet Lilli de Jong in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in the 1880s. She is a devout Quaker and school teacher who is dealing with the recent death of her mother. It might be the grief or just the naiveté of a young woman, but Lilli falls in love with Johan an apprentice of her father’s as a furniture makers. Before Johan (along with her younger brother)  heads off to explore a better life in Pittsburgh and then send for her to join him, they have a night of passion and have sex. That interaction leads to Lilli finding herself pregnant and unmarried in a society that sees all such woman as whores and unworthy of assistance.

Lilli embarks on sev31752152eral months on her own, trying to keep herself and then her baby safe. She has not heard from Johan and assumes she has been duped into sex without any intention to marry her. She is forced to make many dangerous and challenging decisions to keep her baby and many people she encounters encourage her to give the baby up. However, that would likely mean death for her baby as there were little services and options for a “bastard” child.

There were a few times in the novel when I thought, “how much more can this woman endure,” but my interest in the character of Lilli and Benton’s writing kept me going. I don’t want to spoil any of the novel, so I will instead you recommend you pick up a copy and find out for yourself what happens to Lilli de Jong. (Also, if you are in the Philadelphia/Southern NJ area, mark October 7th on your calendar for the Collingswood Book Festival.)

 

A Marriage of A Thousand Lies

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I had high hopes for A Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu as it seemed like a story I would enjoy. The description billed the story as about a Sri Lankan couple, Lucky and Kris, hiding the fact that they are gay by marrying each other but still being able to pursue other relationships.  But this novel wasn’t really about the marriage at all. It was about Lucky who goes to visit her mother and her ill grandmother and then becomes involved (again) with her high school friend who is about to get married. Lucky continually puts herself at risk of being discovered, to the point where I couldn’t decide if it was youthful stupidity or if she wanted a way out of her lie. If the latter was the case, I wanted the author to just get it over with and if it was the former, well, I just thought that made it a weak story. 32077959

There were parts of the novel where the writing flowed eloquently and I could almost forget my other issues with the novel, but the problems were greater than the short passages of eloquence that would have made for a lovely short story. The novel was littered with continuity errors – was it hot or was it cold, it went back and forth and I need to know so that I can imagine the characters in that environment. Lucky and Kris have sex once when she returns home for a short visit and they decide that maybe a baby would be a good idea. Lucky then anxiously awaits her period after returning to her mother’s home. What? Does the author not understand ovulation?

It was these kinds of details that made me frustrated with the novel coupled with never really getting a glimpse of Lucky and Kris’ marriage.

 

 

The Hundred Story Home

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In The Hundred Story Home, Kathy Izard sets out to recount the story of what began as a simple volunteer opportunity with Urban Ministry Center (UMC), but grew until she was helping to create a building to house the formerly homeless. A woman who was a graphic designer, suddenly leading a campaign to build homes for a hundred people, how can that be interesting? But it was truly an interesting and inspiring read.

Izard’s journey to “build beds” began after an encounter with a formerly homeless man, Denver Moore, who came to Charlotte to speak at a fundraiser Izard had organized for UMC. When Moore asked where the beds were after a tour through UMC’s services, Izard felt like it could be the answer to her desire to do good.

Izard is honest about her family’s struggles with her mother’s bipolar disorder, the loss of her father and the eventual need for her mother to move out of their family home. She insightfully reflects on how those experiences affected her particularly her relationship with her mother and as a mother herself.

In reading about the book, I had been apprehensive that it would be overly sentimental and religious, so I was both relieved and happy to find that Izard herself 32027227was skeptical of “god-instances” and feeling called to help. Izard is not a religious person, preferring to volunteer at the soup kitchen with her small daughters rather than dress them up and sit in pews to listen to a pastor tell stories of how one should act in a godly way. It is this desire to act, that leads her to follow the path the question Denver Moore posed to her all the way through creating a building to house the homeless.

I had a personal connection to the story from living in Charlotte around the same time Izard was working on the Moore House and I have to say, I knew nothing about it. But the locations and organizations were familiar. I also related to Izard’s feeling of how separate the worlds are in Charlotte.

A good friend (Ellen) recommended The Hundred Story Home by Kathy Izard to me and I am glad I took her up on the recommendation.  Six years ago, I quit a lucrative career in marketing at a large bank to become a Social Worker/therapist, so Izard’s story about feeling compelled to do something more with her life hit home for me. It also made me think about my impact on my community and if I can do more. So be prepared, you might feel compelled to start volunteering or making other efforts to help those around you.

 

 

Homegoing

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I am finding it difficult to write a review of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi that will do it justice. This book is unlike anything I have read before and I imagine (or at least hope) that it will become required reading.

Gyasi takes us on a journey of centuries, from the Cape Coast of Africa to the coal mines of Alabama to the streets of Harlem all the while telling a captivating story of the power of history and the truth of slavery and its continued impacts. Each chapter tells the story of a different person and they interconnect back to two half-sisters separated early on, their lives and the lives of their ancestors ebbing and flowing across Africa and America.31147619

Gyasi’s writing is precise, her imagery poignant and the themes of fire and water coming up again and again in the characters lives. From the NYT book review “At its best, the novel makes us experience the horrors of slavery on an intimate, personal level; by its conclusion, the characters’ tales of loss and resilience have acquired an inexorable and cumulative emotional weight.”

Other reviews have criticized Gyasi’s ability to adeptly handle the content and characters and mention her young age (26). However, I was fully immersed in this story and if this is where she starts,  I can only imagine what stories she has in store for us and I look forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

 

 

The Hearts of Men

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I added The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler to my reading pile after a tweet about it from a book blogger whose taste often mirrors my own. In that tweet, @seetanyaread said “The Hearts of Men by Nikolas Butler is slaying me. I started it last night and will finish tonight. One of my favs this year.” She later followed up with “OK, so now Nikolas Butler has me crying. Reading Hearts of Men.” Who could ignore that kind of review, right?

I am glad I followed her advice as The Hearts of Men is a compelling novel. Butler weaves the story of several generations of boys through a common link to a boy scout camp, Camp Chippewa in Wisconsin. Butler starts with Nelson Doughty who is an eager and socially awkward teenager embarking on his annual week in the summer of 1962. Nelson is an ambitious scout who is proud to play the bugle each morning at reveille, which only leads to make him more of a target for his peers. Nelson’s father is chaperoning, but seems oblivious to his son or the fact that he is being bullied, focused instead on his own dissatisfaction with life. Nelson feels that he has found one ally in Jonathan Quick, but even Jonathan leverages Nelson’s awkwardness and desperation for friendship in a dramatic scene.

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The second section is set in 1996 with Jonathan now a father with his own teenage son embarking on his week at Boy Scout camp, now managed by Nelson Doughty. We learn how Nelson ended up at  Camp Chippewa after the disappearance of his father, military school and a torturous tour in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Jonathan is engaged in an affair and arranges to introduce his son, Trevor, to his mistress at a dinner Nelson is also attending. Jonathan rides Trevor about Trevor’s high school love, Rachel, and sets out to prove that it will not last. The awkwardness is palpable and your heart burns for Trevor, but in the end, he is a teenage boy who is driven by things other than his heart at times.

The third and final section is set in 2019 and feels very similar to modern day. We are now met by Trevor’s son, Thomas, and his wife Rachel. They too are headed to Camp Chippewa, where an aging Nelson still runs the show. Thomas is less than enthusiastic about leaving his friends and easy access to WiFi to attend boy scout camp which feels old-fashioned and outdated. Rachel, one of the few mothers who has attended over the years, is eager to spend the time in the wilds of camp and connect her son to a part of his father never got to know. Once at the camp, the misogyny of the fathers is quickly apparent and leads to a horrifying encounter.

There were times throughout the novel where the scouting details became a little rote, however, the descriptions of the landscape are wonderfully vivid (the albino deer section was positively poetic). In the end, this was a novel about what drives men to be good and the things that can turn other men toward a more nefarious path.

 

 

The Leavers

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The Leavers by Lisa Ko tells the story of Deming Guo and his mother, Polly, who mysteriously disappears one morning and he is left wondering why she left him behind. While The Leavers focuses on one family, it is a universal tale of loss, misunderstanding and hasty decisions and it is also a timely story as it deals with the instability of being an illegal immigrant in the U.S.

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Ko sets up the story of Deming and his mother, flashing back and forth in time and while all along you know that Polly leaves, you aren’t sure why. Ko is a skilled story teller as there were many times that my stomach dropped and my heart ached for Deming and Polly. I felt connected and invested in them and that makes for a wonderful novel.

I won’t give away the ending, but as you move through the novel, you come to suspect what happened and you hope that Deming and Polly will find their way both back to each other and toward happier lives.

The Sunshine Sisters

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Thanks to Net Galley, I was able to read an advanced copy of this novel which will be published in June.

Jane Green is an author I have been reading for many years. Her stories are lighthearted chick lit and The Sunshine Sisters follows the vein of chick-lit, but her subject matter has gotten a little heavier. Luckily, everything works out in the end – as one would expect in a Jane Green novel.

The Sunshine sisters – Nell, Meredith and Lizzy – grew up with an actress mother, Ronni Sunshine, who was self-centered, materialistic and who could be cruel, especially to her daughters. After their difficult childhoods, they each move away from their mother and their sisters. Suddenly, they are all summoned back to their mother’s home and shockingly, they all go.

While there, they learn that their mother is dying and that she wants to connect the three of them in her last days before an assisted suicide. The sisters all go through grief and anger, but also seem to grow and reflect on the mistakes they have each made in their relationships and lives.

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Nell was a young mother who has never opened herself up to romance and works hard to maintain the farm she worked at and eventually inherited.

Meredith is an accountant in London who has buried her artistic talents and is engaged to the dull and controlling Derek.

Lizzy a successful entrepreneur who is married to James and has a young son, but who has also been having an affair with her business partner.

By the time the novel ends and Ronni Sunshine decides to end her life on her terms, the sisters have re-bonded and face their uncertain futures together.

 

This Is How It Always Is

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This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel reads like an easy beach read, but with a deeper subject and, in my opinion, better written.

Penn and Rosie are the parents of five boys. They are busy, quirky and present parents. Rosie is a doctor, Penn is forever working on his damn novel. Their kids are happy and free to express their own individual personality. Their world gets turned upside down when, Claude, their youngest, starts to show that he identifies as a girl. Penn and Rosie try to do their best for Claude, allowing him/her to wear dresses and eventually socially transition to Poppy.

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However, as well-meaning and seemingly supportive as Rosie and Penn try to be, there are still missteps and misunderstandings as they try to support their youngest child. They put her needs above their other children’s, Rosie leaves a position she loves to live in a more accepting city.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It was easy and the inclusion of Penn’s nightly fairy tale was a fun literary device. I appreciated that a story of an ordinary family trying their best to help their transgender child live a happy life could be a mainstream novel.

 

Difficult Women

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My introduction to Roxane Gay was through her novel Untamed State which my book club read and which has stayed with me since I read it. I then read her essays in Bad Feminist and began to follow her on Twitter. I saw her speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia last month when I had started, but not finished her latest offering, a collection of short stories titled Difficult Women. Given that I’ve read a lot of what she has published, I think it’s safe to say I’m a fan.

The stories in Difficult Women run the gamut, from humorous to thought-provoking to unsettling. The thread that ties them together is the grit and “I don’t give any fucks” attitudes of at least one woman in each story. Some of the stories verged on the edge of disturbing, but that lead to me to question why and included a little examination into my own ideas, experiences and beliefs. As always, Gay pushes us to think outside the box of our limited, first-person experiences.

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Her last two stories are probably the strongest. In Noble Things, the penultimate story, she imagines an America divided (again) into North and South by a fence with Florida, Texas and parts of the Midwest seceded from the Union. Given today’s political environment, that feels closer than ever to reality.

In Strange Gods she explores the story of a young woman who has been hurt by men from a young age and the impact that has on her ability to trust and expect from a partner. It is raw and like Untamed State, I think will be the story that stays with me the longest.

Like she is on Twitter, I don’t think her stories are for everyone, but if you are looking for thoughtful, provoking stories, look no further.