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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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.

 

Love Warrior

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Wow. Just wow. I just finished Love Warrior and I am left speechless.  Love Warrior is a memoir from Glennon Doyle Melton detailing her life and marriage, but it is so much more than just a memoir. It is a song to every woman who has struggled with a feeling of not being enough and for those who have accepted the voice of society telling us to stay small.

I had followed Melton’s blog (Momastery)  for a long time and on the periphery I knew her story — the story that her marriage crumbled, that she went back on forth on staying or leaving and that so many of her followers felt it was their right to tell her what to do. And all the while, I saw a woman struggling with making the right choice for herself and her family with grace and openness in the spotlight. With Love Warrior she opens the door even wider to talk about what she learned about herself through that experience and the process of  reuniting her mind, body and spirit. She talks about the journey that lead her to her marriage to Craig and the “representative” self she shows to the world because early she received the message that her true self was too messy for the world.

Her honesty and willingness to share her individual experience as a way of helping all women is commendable. She does it all with amazing eloquence and golden nuggets of advice.29215173

Take the starting lines of three paragraphs in one section:

“My imagination is a jack-in-the-box”

“My depression is a dark, dense fog.”

“My grief is a solid brick wall in front of me.”

Or this:

“Growing up is an unbecoming. My healing has been a peeling away of costume after costume until her I am, still and naked and unashamed before God, stripped down to my real identity.”

This book would benefit many women and there are so many facets of the story that even if you don’t like one particular part, you are sure to find something else that resonates.

 

The Light of Paris

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It is no secret that Paris is one of my favorite places in the world. I dreamed of going to the city of lights from the time I was 12 until I was able to go in 2001 and I have returned two more times since then. Needless to say, books set in Paris are always of interest to me. 27833796

I picked up Eleanor Brown’s The Light of Paris with curiosity and joy and when I put it down I felt fulfilled and satisfied. The novel alternates between Madeleine in 1999 and her grandmother, Margie, in 1924. There are similarities in both women. They are stuck in archaic and bourgeois notions of what a woman’s role should be and feel suffocated by their reality and dream of escape. Both do not fit the mold of the women they are told they should aspire to be (thin, perfectly coifed, elegantly dressed, with no thoughts other than being good wives) and are instead awkward artistic women – Madeleine a painter and Margie a writer.  Margie gets the opportunity to escort a wily cousin to Europe in 1924, but when the plan goes awry she chooses to stay in Paris against her parent’s consent and wishes. Margie finds a job and falls in love with the city and a painter and I fell in love with Paris all over again with her.

Reading through her grandmother’s notebooks, Madeleine becomes inspired by her story and decides that it isn’t worth crushing herself into the mold of the luncheon ladies and begins to imagine and create a different future for herself.

Given that yesterday I was at the Women’s March in Philadelphia, finishing the story felt particularly poignant. It reminded me of how far women have come and yet the continued need to be able to create our own stories and follow our own dreams.

The Light of Paris isn’t a terribly heavy book, but it was an enjoyable and quick read. A final note – if you enjoyed The Help, you will enjoy The Light of Paris.

 

Commonwealth

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We all have authors that we love and when they publish a book there is a great excitement to see what they have to offer. But then we might read some reviews and some of those reviews might claim that the latest offering is not as good as the proceeding novels, leading us to put off reading it and worrying that the reviews will be right. Ann Patchett is one of those authors for me and yet, I found Commonwealth to be a well-written novel with well-developed characters and a plot that kept me reading late into the night.

No, it wasn’t as shocking and dramatic as Bel Canto, but Patchett is not the same writer she was when she wrote Bel Canto nor am I the same reader. But Commonwealth is just as good, if not a better, a novel than her more recent offerings. (Looking back at my past reviews of her work, I note that I compare all Patchett’s books to Bel Cant0)

What I liked about Commonwealth was the exploration of family relationships complicated by divorce and remarriage and the experiences that bind those relationships that are both intimate and distant often influenced on changing external factors. 28214365
Commonwealth centers on the Cousins and Keating children. Four Cousins (two boys and two girls) and two Keating children (two girls) are thrown together for most of their childhood summers after Mr. Cousins and the formerly Mrs. Keating marry and move to Virginia from LA. Time jumps from their childhood summers into their twenties and forties, as we track the six children along with their four parents. They deal with romantic relationships, illnesses and deaths, births and the rest of life’s moments both large and mundane in the shadow of what happened one particular summer. What is most interesting is tracking the relationships that are maintained and how the assumptions of the past fade and change.

I think readers who enjoy interesting, almost human characters and a compelling story would enjoy Commonwealth, especially if they leave any expectations at the door and just enjoy this well-written novel.