Ruthie Fear by Maxim Loskutoff (Literary Fiction)

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

A story about a young girl growing up in a trailer in the Bitterroot Valley, just South of Missoula, Montana. Raised by her father when her mother abandons them, she alternates between absorbing his values and lifestyle and wishing she could have almost any other life. We follow her from age six through her early thirties as she tries to find her place in the world.

The book is beautifully written, evoking the wild beauty of the valley, surrounding mountains, and wildlife as well as depicting small town Montana life amid a sea of changes. We see the world through Ruthie’s eyes as she struggles to reconcile the violence and injustice that she abhors with her own inner darkness and the natural and man-made disasters that beset the Valley.

The overall tone of the book is (to me) depressing. Her perceptions of most (not all) of the men around her is as pathetic, angry, and beaten down by life. The story is a slow parade of natural and man-made disasters and the impact on the relatively impoverished people around her: fires, a giant earthquake, the mills closing and ensuing lack of work, the incursion of the “California carpetbaggers,” ski areas closed due to warming weather, thousands of geese killed from polluted ponds, etc. She is a constant witness to conflict and violence — against animals and against other people. She observes that much of the anger percolates through the hierarchy of locals: white settlers who have been there for generations, the Salish Indians (the “original” locals), and the constant influx of people who came fleeing someplace else — hippies, polygamist mormons, retirees. Everybody wants the others to disappear and nobody wants anyone new to show up.

The last chapter took a wild turn into left field. I don’t know where it came from, and I can’t decide if it was symbolic or something that was actually happening. I’m going with largely symbolic, but I don’t want to include any spoilers so you’ll have to read it and let me know your thoughts…

Overall I enjoyed reading this book — gorgeous writing, character depth, and a level of detail that made it all so palpable. I would have preferred a more balanced view of life in the area — I understand that this really was one person’s experience, but it painted the area as somewhat hopeless, full of victims who were unable to stem the tide of unwanted change (or adapt to it). It reminded me of Louise Erdrich books which I’ve stopped reading — incredibly beautifully done, but on the depressing side.

Thank you to W.W. Norton & Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 1st, 2020.

500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan (Chick Lit)

This is just one of those happy, sweet, books that buoys my spirits. The fact that all the action takes place in London and a Scottish village near Loch Ness (two of my favorite locations on the planet) doesn’t hurt a bit. OK — also I am a Jenny Colgan fan, so no surprise that I enjoyed this one.

Kind of a cross between “The Holiday” and “84 Charing Cross Road,” two Nurse Practitioner Liaisons switch jobs and houses for a three month period — Lissa Westcott leaving London for Kirrinfief, Scotland while Cormac MacPherson heads to London. Having never met, they get to know each other via daily email check ins and … you can guess the rest. Very nicely done — the perspective of the stranger learning the ropes in a foreign place (I’m sorry, but Scotland wins every time) — made me hunger to visit (a little difficult right now as we have to wonder when we will ever be able to travel again). Some lovely descriptions of nature, tight knit communities, friendship, and the excitement of learning something new. Very sweet ending.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 9th, 2020.

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 🙂

Some Quotes:
“To me, typing was akin to publishing. I lived for that typewriter, and I would agonize when the ribbon became twisted, or the keys stuck, and I needed my mother’s assistance. She didn’t prioritize typewriter repair the same way I did.”

“When we exhausted all possible topics of conversation, I dropped my news like I was carpet-bombing Baghdad in Desert Storm.”

“Is the mark of adulthood putting others first? Or is it standing behind your own vision, your own work, your own view of the world? Beads of sweat form on my forehead and I have to wipe my brow.”

“To find something in a manuscript that you recognize as familiar truth, but also as wisdom you’re hearing voiced in a new and articulate way.”

About sausade: “It’s like a nostalgia or melancholy, but more than that. With a recognition that the something we’re longing for hasn’t happened, or isn’t returning. Or maybe never was.”

“Women like your mother and me, from our generation, we were duty bound. Things were expected of us, marriage and motherhood. But we were girls once, with dreams and aspirations of our own. When we see our children succeed, of course part of their accomplishments are our own. But it also reminds us that life doesn’t turn out for everyone the way they dreamed.”

“Jackie has lived most of her adult life in the long romantic shadow cast by history. What must it be like to have a whole nation idealize a past that you know firsthand was painfully imperfect?”

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.

One Fatal Flaw by Anne Perry (Mystery)

Like many people, I’m sticking to light and entertaining books these days.  Although I’m not posting a review of it (because I’ve already read it 4 times and multiple reviews is CHEATING) my favorite go-to destresser book is Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins.  Just in case you need it!

And now for this latest mystery from Anne Perry…

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The third book of Perry’s new series starring twenty five year-old Daniel Pitt (Inspector Thomas Pitt’s now grown son pursuing a legal profession). It’s the first of this series that I have read — decent, twisted, plot; some good characters including Daniel himself and and 40-year old Miriam fforde Croft — a talented scientist who has been denied entrance to an all-male profession. The plot of this novel hinges on the expert testimony of a most unpleasant man who argues that a cracked skull is the result of a fire’s high heat and not a bludgeoning. Strong themes of the importance of justice and proof, and the lengths to which some will go to maintain their (unearned) high reputation.

I liked the themes and the characters — I found the whole thing a little repetitive but overall entertaining.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (Non-fiction)

A fascinating (but somewhat uneven) book that looks at the way the needs of half of the world’s population (women) are ignored in the design of almost every system and object on the planet. From transportation systems, to medicine, to the sizes of tools, cars, and piano keyboards, Perez points out the insidious way that women’s needs aren’t considered unless they perfectly align with men’s. She divides the book into three themes: the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. It’s a mixed bag — a huge pile of information (with references) — some of which is deeply insightful, some politically motivated, and some really about the needs of groups which may be predominantly women but are not necessarily problems of women because they are women.

The best parts (for me) focused on the (ignored) biological differences in the female body. Examples include different heart attack signs, incorrect medication dosages, and pacemaker thresholds. What amazed me was that some studies have shown different medication efficacy at different stages of the menstrual cycle — and yet no pharmaceutical trials ever even consider that. Why? As one researcher said — it’s just too hard! Other aspects of the “female body” theme are a little less cut and dried. Many, many, things from tools, to voice recognition systems, to pianos, to car seats, to the temperature in offices are designed for “the average man.” I always have trouble with averages because that means that many men — who are not average size — will also have trouble with these things depending on the shape of the curve and the spread in sizes. Still — I found all of these stories to be fascinating and primarily things I had never considered. I had some issues with the other two themes — the assumptions and calculations didn’t always make sense to me — though they did give me something to think about.

Overall this is a really fascinating collection of data (or lack of data) about how the world that we live in considers women to be the “exception to the norm.” While I found that some of the examples strain the point — really belonging to other groups, many of whom happen to be women; calculations of economic productivity that leave out factors not supporting her conclusion; items based on averages that are not working for non-average men as well as women, etc — there are an equal number of truly fascinating studies and examples that completely shifted the way I thought about things.

Recommended, but keep your own thinking cap on before blindly accepting all of her conclusions….

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont (Memoir)

Very well-written memoir about the author growing up in a dysfunctional family full of mental illness and big-time secrets. Raised as a Catholic, her discovery that her parents and aunt were instead Jewish holocaust survivors was the subject of her first book — After Long Silence (1999).  The Escape Artist starts with the aftermath of the previous work — estrangement from her family and an invitation to her father’s funeral only to find that she had been cut out of his will with the phrase “as if she had predeceased me.” The narrative bounces between 1965 and the present (well-labeled and easy to follow) and follows the wild dynamics of a sister who is alternately her best friend and a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy person vowing to kill her. While the first book uncovers the Catholic / Jewish secret, this book uncovers a second large family secret (which truthfully is not the main purpose of the book and is not over dramatized in any way — it’s just something we find out / figure out near the end). The primary focus is on her relationship with the family, particularly her sister, and her own slow self-discovery of the person she wants to be.

I enjoyed reading this book — it was well-written and the characters were deeply portrayed — intentionally from the author’s perspective. Exactly my kind of memoir where the author makes plain her interior logic, experiences, and even her own doubt as to what actually happened vs what she remembers happening. My only complaint might be that it was a tad too long — I was ready to be done about 40 pages from the end. I admit that there is also something that disturbs me about one person writing a memoir that exposes the secrets of others. There was a good reason her family did not want people to know they were Jewish and I can see being equally unhappy about the family exposure in this book.