The Peppermint Tea Chronicles by Alexander McCall Smith (literary fiction)

Another nice installment of the 44 Scotland Street series — number 13. I enjoy every one of the books in McCall Smith’s series — I look forward to them as a treat.  McCall Smith is the master of exquisite usage of an enormous vocabulary. His writing is precise and insightful, and he wields his vocabulary in such a way as to make the nuance between words of similar meaning obvious.

His characters opine on subjects of private and public matters, and some of his “rants” are masterfully done. The paragraph on reading the news of the world on page 195 was worth the whole price of the book. I also loved his short treatise on “hold music” including this: “…although extensive research has revealed that the Flower Duet from Lakme is not only capable of soothing callers through delays of up to twenty minutes, but also has remarkable qualities in combating airsickness. That piece of music, purloined by British Airways as its theme tune, is suggestive of the soaring of both the human spirit and of aircraft — a happy coincidence for the airline with which it is identified.”

The Editor by Steven Rowley (Literary Fiction)

An incredibly touching novel about motherhood, life, and forgiveness. Masterfully crafted, the plot weaves together author James Smale’s effort to publish his first novel and his own personal growth through the process. The surprise yoda-like catalyst for this — wait for it — is his editor: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I admit to fearing the book would be a fictionalized history of Jackie and her glamorous life; however it was anything but. This book celebrates Jackie’s work as an editor, and while James is the main character, Jackie provides the stimulus, advice, and motivation to make his work great.

As The Editor winds through the editing process of James’ Ithaka — a loosely fictionalized story about James and his mother — the interplay between author and editor, fiction and life is brilliantly done. With clear, concise, and humorous writing, carefully crafted sentences, and excellent, in-depth characters, it was a real pleasure to read.

As an interesting aside in these virus-infested times — while we don’t get treated to any excerpts from Ithaka, we do know that the action occurs during a 40-day quarantine (!) that forces mother and son to confront all of their issues. So perhaps we can look forward to some valuable personal and relationship insights from our own shelter-in-place experiences 🙂

Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 30th, 2020.

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 5th, 2020.

The story of a lifelong friendship between two women who first meet at Lovegood College in 1958. Feron comes from a terrible, dark, background and has trouble connecting with people in any meaningful way; complacent and composed, Merry comes from a happy background and yet suffers a tragedy that forces her to withdraw from school after only one semester. Both develop literary interests and talents which feature in the story.

It’s an odd (to me) friendship and an odder narrative. After bonding immediately as freshman roommates, their next contact isn’t for ten years and remains sporadic after that. The narrative plays off this strange relationship by leaping from contact to contact and filling in the (event rich) intervening years via memories and asides. Thus whole marriages are relegated to a sad memory summarized in a couple of lines.

In some ways the book is written well — the language is good, the characters interesting, the dialog decent. However, it was difficult to get invested in the characters and this central relationship when there was so little to it. The author does convey the closeness each feels to the other, in spite of the fact that neither seems to make much effort to connect more often. It’s possible that these are just not people or modes of interaction that would work for me — I didn’t particularly like either of the main characters. I could not manage to find empathy for Feron, despite knowing her background and being privy to her inner thoughts. Merry was less well developed and while likable, she was far too passive for my taste. I feel like a real friendship would have brought out more in the other — the fact that these two felt close, despite rarely seeing or talking to each other, wasn’t much of a story.

While there was a lot in the book I liked — the (very different) literary aspirations, motivations, and processes for the two; the full depictions of Merry’s tobacco farm, Feron’s New York City life, Lovegood college, and the other characters — overall I found it rather depressing. Nobody in the book has a particularly happy life, and while the tone is not overly dramatic (the action is removed since it’s all in history), I felt dragged into an emotional pall. While each character seemed to have found some happiness or sense of accomplishment in their life, we don’t get to experience that directly. Overall I found the book mildly interesting from an intellectual perspective and mildly depressing from the emotional.

Ask Again,Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Character: 5/5

I ended up loving this story exploring the impact of a “tragic event” on two families. In general, I don’t like reading about tragic events — it’s depressing, upsetting, and being the emotional sponge that I am, I don’t feel the need to soak up more misery than is absolutely necessary. But! This really wasn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s a book about people making their way through life, living with choices — both the ones they make and the ones thrust upon them — and learning about themselves and each other.

Two families brought together happenstance (two rookie cops in the same class, a move to adjacent houses in the suburbs) are inextricably bound together by the aforementioned “tragic incident.” The book does a brilliant job of showcasing the full impact of mental illness — from the person who suffers, to his or her family, and the swath of destruction left in its wake. Ranging from the early seventies to the present day, we get intimate portraits of each character as his or her innate personalities are molded, expanded, and stunted by his or her experiences — a kind of a human development lab examining the twining of nature and nurture. Some excellent portraits of marriage — I love one of the lines: “Marriage is long. All the seams get tested.”

Absorbing writing, in-depth, and insightful characters — an exploration of the impact of the vicissitudes of life on evolving into the person you become.

Good for fans of Ann Packer or Joyce Carol Oates.

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

A surprisingly good read that explores the impact of a new and glittery School for the Gifted plonked down in a privileged Colorado enclave. Crystal Academy — with the best of intents — seems to draw out the worst in a set of parents who had until this point been perfectly happy with their children’s schooling. The book’s epigraph — penned by the author’s mother — sums it up nicely: “There is something so tantalizing about having a gifted child that some parents will go to almost any lengths to prove they have one.”

The story follows the four families associated with through the various stages: learning about the school, making the “first cut,” building up a case for “the whole child,” and on to the final cut. Emerging from the narrative are arguments for and against the venture, rants by parent’s whose children didn’t make the first cut, and the lengths parents go to — surprising even to those making them — to get their children in. Within the well detailed descriptions of the eight parents (and a brief description of a Quechuan family from the “wrong side of town” whose child is also under consideration) we are presented with a variety of ideas, worries, hopes, machinations, hypocrisy, entitlement, and interesting permutations on liberalism. Never boring and full of moral quandaries fascinating to the uninvolved bystander (me).

From a diversity viewpoint, it was interesting to me that the father characters were all a little sucky — weak or wildly irresponsible or perfect in every way … but dead. The wives were stronger, more interesting, and possessed decent cores, albeit cores that get derailed by the glittery object stressor. The (male) author gives only one of the parents a completely decent, honest, and calm personality: Azra — the only non-Caucasian in the group. I’m always interested in the underlying message here!

Fast, absorbing, read — I wasn’t able to empathize with all of the parents or the steps they took, and I disagree with *most* of the arguments pro and con the school. I’m a big, big, believer in gifted education, but mostly I wish we could educate each person in his/her own style, at her/his own pace, and with all the stimulation and support s/he needs.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (Historical Fiction)

Characters: 4.5/5 Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

A dramatic and fiercely feminist bit of historical fiction. Sue Monk Kidd inserts a remarkable character into the life of Jesus Christ — a wife named Ana. This is Ana’s story, however, not his. From childhood, the secret longing of this determined and deeply intelligent girl has been to have a Voice. Beginning with writing the stories of the matriarchs of the bible, she continues throughout her life to document the stories of forgotten and neglected women everywhere.

I was completely pulled in to the story. The historical context is rich with detail and insight into both the lives of individuals and the social and political currents of the time. Full sensory descriptions of Ana’s writing — the scrolls, inks and pens; the libraries and codices; the requisite hiding places; and the rare and tenuous gift that she had been allowed, as a woman, to learn to read and write at all. As we go through her life, we experience the inspiration for her writings and read samples as well. I was fascinated to learn that one such sample — Thunder: Perfect Mind — was an actual text unearthed from the 1942 Nag Hammadi excavation and dated to the time of the story.

There is plenty of drama — Ana’s father Matthias is the chief scribe and advisor to Herod Antipas; her adopted brother is Judas; and she meets and marries Jesus — but the actual story was far more political than spiritual … and I appreciated the historical depiction unencumbered by later religious trappings. As an aside, I loved the description of life in Therapeutae — an actual community of Jewish philosophers in Alexandria.

While Sue Monk Kidd’s style is often a little too emotional for me, I was completely drawn into this story of a strong woman insisting on her own voice — in some ways relegating the “greatest story ever told” to a mere influence. This book managed to completely shift my perspective on a period of time I knew little about.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 21st, 2020.

 

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5+/5
Loved this book — 500 pages and I read it in a day and a half — I couldn’t stop!

A skillfully constructed family drama pulsing with life, love, relationships, tragedy, and personality — yet (thankfully) never crossing that line into the minefield of melodrama. Amina Eapen is a talented photojournalist who fled to the safety of weddings and quinceaneras after taking a stunning suicide photo that led to both massive acclaim and massive recrimination. A second-generation, Indian-American immigrant, this story features some of the immigrant flavor, but primarily throws stereotype aside to focus on intricately drawn individuals with so much detail I feel I know them better than I know myself. The action takes place primarily in Albuquerque and moves between the present (1998) and (well sign-posted) pieces of personal history.

I always hesitate to give anything away because the stories unfold at the perfect pace and you should get to enjoy the uncoiling. Suffice it to say that this is a book about family relationships, concomitant personal growth for all, love and loneliness, life and death. Characters: Amina’s father Thomas, the brain surgeon who prefers life in the U.S.; his wife Kamala who wants nothing more than to go back to India; brother Akhil, angry and ranting until he meets his perfect foil; and their extended families — the biological portion left in India and the even closer family created locally.

The writing is beautiful and manages to be funny and poignant at the same time. One of those books where I highlight phrases on most pages (see samples below). I thought the last line of the novel was absolutely perfect. Some comprehensive and edifying descriptions of the process of creating artistic photography which I found fascinating.

As an aside, I learned about a group of Christians that was completely new to me: Amina’s family are part of the Syrian Christians of India who trace their conversion to the 1st century AD after a visit from Thomas the apostle. This plays only a tiny role in the book but I love a good historical tidbit.

It reminded me a little bit of A Place For Us — which I also loved — probably because both are 2nd generation immigrant family dramas that do not claim to represent the category but are splendidly unique and have that amazing character insight that draws me in.

Some quotes:

“Amina nodded calmly, trying to keep her face from registering any hint of worry, but something in her chest bunched up on itself, like a cat being cornered.”

“It wasn’t that she doubted their love or intentions, but the weight of that love would be no small thing. What would they do with everyone else’s worry on top of their own? Thomas did not weather other people’s concern well. He was not going to be happy with her.”

“Cool, flabby arms squeezed her round the middle hard, more a Heimlich than an actual greeting.”

“A minute later Amina set everything on the counter between them and sat down, instantly more jittery, like there was a panic button on her ass.”

“It resembled nothing as much as a set of monster’s dentures fallen from some other world and forgotten on the dusty side of the thoroughfare”

“Her mother’s convictions that movies continue in some private offscreen world had always been as baffling as it was irrefutable. Whole plots had found themselves victims to Kamala’s reimagining, happy endings derailed, tragedies righted.”

“Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird, Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.”

“…she would not destroy another creature’s carefully wrought world. If she were God, she’d be a little fucking kinder.”

“Why is it that fathers so often ensure the outcome they are trying to avoid? Is their need to dominate so much stronger than their instinct to protect? Did Thomas know, Amina wondered as she watched him, that he had just done the human equivalent of a lion sinking his teeth into his own cub?”

“… it was that every part of Paige, from her conscience to her politics to her grown woman’s body, was suffused by an optimism so assured that to stay with her, Akhil had to stop being such an angry dick.”

“Her cigarette had a thumb-tip-sized ash growing on it. She flicked it, stuck it between her lips like a straw, and sucked. A cat with its claws out skidded down her trachea.”

“Why bother? Once rewritten, Kamala’s history was safer than classified government documents.”

“It was one of Dimple’s favorite theories, how thousands of years of obsession with a Christian God in a subcontinent of more dynamic religions had petrified the Syrian Christian community, turning them into what she alternately called ‘the stalest community on earth’ or ‘Indian’s WASPs.’ “

“She hated seeing her own face right next to Simple’s — all beak and long chin and awnings for eyebrows, where Dimple’s was a crisp, pert heart.”

“She imagined all of it gone, undone, erased back to 1968, when the city was nothing but eighty miles of hope huddling in a dust storm. She imagined Kamala on the tarmac, walking toward a life in the desert, her body pulled forward by faith and dirty wind.”