Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

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

Olive Kitteridge — gruff, direct, honest and with absolutely no patience for pretense or pretentiousness. Some people love Olive for just this reason — many others consider her a rude “old bag”.  I love the fact that Olive — in her late seventies now — continues to have epiphanies about herself and her life.

The book is a collection of snapshots of life in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Some are centered on Olive herself, but in others she plays only a peripheral, though impactful, role. Ranging in age from middle school to elderly and incorporating contextual situations such as drug use, sexual harassment, suicide, Somali immigration, and even the value provided by a dominatrix (!) — the stories are full of introspection and reflection. They are more about how people absorb experiences into their own perspective, rather than the experiences themselves.

Strout is the master of the imperfect relationship — no closure, no solutions — just the reality of evolving relationships with ups and downs and fresh interior “ahas” rather than the drama of abrupt discovery via loud confrontation.

For those who loved Strout’s 2008 work Olive Kitteridge, Olive,Again takes up where the latter leaves off, covering the next decade of Olive’s life (it’s not necessary to read the first book, this one stands up well on its own). It’s a fascinating look at life from the perspective of old age, and while there is loss and plenty of “old age indignities,” there is also a great sense of hope, understanding, and wisdom.
Great Quotes:
“It seemed to her she had never before completely understood how far apart human experience was.”

“And then he thought: how does one live an honest life?”

“It’s just the way it was, that’s all. People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something”

“…and during the night they would shift, but always they were holding each other, and Jack thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore — and how they hold on for dear life!”

“What frightened him was how much of his life he had lived without knowing who he was or what he was doing. It caused him to feel an inner trembling, and he could not quite find the words — for himself — to even put it exactly as he sensed it. But he sensed that he had lived his life in a way that he had not known.”

“But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish — all those hundreds of students she had taught, the girls and boys in high school she had passed in the corridor when she was a high school girl herself, the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had place before her cups of coffee — All of it gone, or about to go.”

“Because as her heart became more constricted, Henry’s heart became needier, and when he walked up behind her in the house sometimes to slip his arms around her, it was all she could do to not visibly shudder.”

“Cindy Coombs, there’s not one goddamn person in this world who doesn’t have a bad memory or two to take with them through life.”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 15th, 2019.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (Women’s Fiction)

A feel-good, heartwarming, story about the unlikely relationship between a woman whose husband died just as she was (literally) leaving him and a star Yankee pitcher who “loses his stuff” in a spectacularly public way.

Well-written with great banter, an array of likable characters, and plenty of humor. The premise is plausible enough and I enjoyed the social commentary and details of every day life in this small town on the mid-Coast of Maine. There is a lot more depth to the characters than is usual for a women’s fiction offering of this sort.

The author is the host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast — I haven’t heard of this (I’m not a big podcast person), but I like the title, and I can guess that this explains a lot about the great character interactions!) Interesting to note that in two of the primary families, it is the mother that left, leaving the father to raise the children alone. I’m noticing a trend of this kind of gender role swapping which is always interesting!

One small annoyance for me personally — a (pretty humorous) diatribe on the part of one character about a woman who was destroying their book club because she wanted people to actually read the books and didn’t accept that book clubs were just for socializing. I am that woman, and I stand by my demands!!

Great for fans of Kristan Higgins.

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 June 25th, 2019.

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4
Children’s fiction — middle grade

New (to me) word: hibernaculum — a place in which a creature seeks refuge, such as a bear using a cave to overwinter.

I loved this book — a perfect middle school read!

Gusta Newbronner “loses” her father on the bus ride from NYC to Northern Maine. She will be staying with the grandmother she has never met and living in Grandma Hoopes’ orphan home. The time is 1941 and there is general tension around foreigners. The tension is even higher around Gusta’s father who is not only a foreigner, but a union organizer as well. While Gusta sees her father as brave, courageous, principled, and fighting injustice, others see him simply as a foreign fugitive.

The story is full of real and (to me) lovable characters — her grandmother and aunt, the various children staying in the orphan home, new found cousins, and even the two children who represent opposing sides in “the Dairy Wars” in her classroom. Originally shy and unassuming, Gusta comes into her own as she learns to stand up for what she believes in and to fight injustice in whatever way she can. In the meantime she is making friends, getting to know her family and joining the Honorary Orphan Band (playing the French Horn — she appears to be a bit of a prodigy).

The writing is excellent. In addition to delightful language (see examples below), we are treated to intriguing descriptions of the process of egg cleaning (far more unpleasant than I would have ever guessed), the thrill of playing the French Horn, oculism in the 40s, pigeon photography (as in they are trained to take the photos), and magical stories from Gusta’s great-grandfather, the sea captain. I absolutely loved the description of what it was like for Gusta to see clearly for the first time when she was able to get glasses. Masterfully done.

The novel has that genuine feel of a true story — unsurprising as it is a fictionalized account of the author’s mother’s life, supported with extensive research using the local paper archives. I would add this to any middle grade reading list.

Some of my favorite lines…

“The winter must have been picking at the scabs of that road for months.”

“Gusta’s mother was omnivorous when it came to words”

“For a moment, Gusta stood there, just saving the feeling of having someone in the world who was already glad today about seeing her tomorrow.”

“And the heaviness inside Gusta, where all the secrets festered, thickened and increased.”

“She knew from stories that wishes wriggle and cheat — if they even exist at all.”

“It was like she coated all her meanness with a hard-sugar layer of wholehearted sincerity.”

“Georges made the happy sound of someone who has just become a part of the great unfolding history of pigeon photography.”