Monday, February 27, 2017

Today Will be Different by Maria Semple

At first I found this book a little bit weird, but after the first few chapters I was hooked - or at least hooked enough to be quite curious about what the protagonist, Eleanor Flood, was hiding.

Eleanor wakes up one morning and decides it's time to become a better version of herself - so she dresses well, does her hear and make up and vows to be more attentive to her son and husband.  She also resigns herself to keep a lunch date with a friend who she doesn't really like.

But everything is thrown into turmoil when her son feigns sickness to spend the day with her, her husband is has mysteriously told his office he was on vacation, but not his family and her lunch date is not with her long time friend but with a person from her past who dredges up painful memories in front of her son.

The rest of the book deals with Eleanor's efforts to find out what's up with her husband as well as alternating chapters which tell us the difficulties of Eleanor's childhood and the trauma she has been trying to hide from her son (and herself).

The writing style is very odd - first person perspective from a weird character, but in the end I did enjoy the story and sympathized with Eleanor's issues.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

This is the best book I have read in a long time.  The "mothers" in the title has many layered meanings.  First, it refers to the female elders of a church just outside San Diego which is frequented by the three main characters and their families.  But it also refers to seventeen year old Nadia Turner's mother who has just committed suicide when the story begins.  And it refers to her best friend, Aubrey's, mother who neglected her and turned a blind eye when she was the target of abuse by her mother's boyfriend.  It could also refer to Aubrey's older sister who takes her in when she finally leaves her abusive childhood behind and, who extends her care to Nadia when she is desperately in need of mothering.  It could also refer to Luke Sheppard's mother.  Luke, the pastor's son, is Nadia's hidden boyfriend when she is 17 and his mother's meddling arguably impacted both of their lives forever.  Finally, it can refer to Nadia and Aubrey themselves who have complicated relationships with motherhood as they age.

At 17, Luke and Nadia's relationship, and choices they make, lead to a secret that haunts everyone into adulthood.  The book follows Nadia, Luke and Aubrey through college and adulthood as their relationships with each other change and the secrets they've all kept begin to unravel.

The book is mostly written from Nadia's perspective, but there are occasional passages from the perspective of the church mothers which advance the narrative through the years and provide us with information that Nadia couldn't know.

I don't want to give much more information as it could spoil the secrets, but this is a fascinating look into complex relationships, particularly those between mothers and their children.  I highly recommend it.  The writing style is unique, but easy to read.  The characters are flawed but very human.  I was taken in right from the start.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Serial Monogamy by Kate Taylor

It seems every book I read lately shifts back and forth in time and place.  This one is no different.

The main storyline is about Sharon, a wife and mother of twin girls who is also a successful romance novelist.  Her comfortable life is shattered when first her husband leaves her for a graduate student and then she is diagnosed with breast cancer.

While she is recovering from chemotherapy, she is offered a job writing a serial fiction piece for a local newspaper.  She decides to write about the young mistress of Charles Dickens.  So most of the story alternates between present day Toronto where Sharon struggles with her failing marriage and her serious illness and Victorian England where we learn about Dickens from the perspective of his much younger lover.  However, there are also other interludes - a few chapters which look at the perspective of Dickens' wife, two longer pieces that are adaptations of the Persian The Thousand and One Nights, and some which I found particularly interesting and ultimately surprising from the perspective of Shay, a Canadian graduate student living in London and studying Dickens' wife.  The epilogue is also from the perspective of the graduate student with whom Sharon's husband has his affair.

I found it really interesting how I had to keep changing mindsets to follow the different storylines.  At first I shied away from the book because I didn't like the sound of the historical sections, but I ended up finding them quite compelling.  However, the present day chapters were the most touching to me.

In all I quite enjoyed this book.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This was a really interesting depiction of two families whose lives become intertwined one fateful day.  Fix, a Los Angeles police officer, and his wife, Beverly, throw a christening party for their second daughter, Franny.  Bert Cousins, a deputy district attorney, married father of four with one on the way, shows up as an uninvited guest.  When he first lays eyes on Beverly, he wants her immediately.  They get together, move to Virginia with Beverly and Fix's two daughters and change the lives of both families forever.

In particular, Bert's four children spend part of the summer in Virginia with Beverly's daughters and the six children are essentially left unsupervised.  Ultimately tragedy strikes one of the children which affects their lives, and the lives of their four parents, forever.

This book also travels back and forth in time - we see Franny as an adult looking after Fix as he suffers cancer in old age.  We see the relationship she and her sister have had over time with Bert's four children and his ex-wife.  Franny had told the story of her family to a novelist with whom she was involved and eventually the story makes its way to the big screen and we see how Fix reacts to seeing it with his daughter on his 83rd birthday.  There are also chapters dealing with what happened to all of the children in the intervening years.

It's hard to summarize much more without giving away key parts of the story - but if you like books about complex family relationships, that are part humorous and part sad, you will enjoy this book.

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa

This was a different take on the Holocaust story - some of it quite familiar and usual; other parts more  imaginative.

The book follows the lives of two girls whose paths cross once one is already elderly.  The first is Hannah Rosenthal.  She is a Jewish girl living in a privileged family in Berlin, until 1939.  When the Nazis take over, and place more and more restrictions on Jews, her family uses all available resources to get visas to leave.  Eventually Hannah, her father, her pregnant mother and her best friend Leo and his father get visas to Cuba and passage on the infamous SS St. Louis.  Hannah and her mother get the "right kind of visa" and are allowed to disembark in Havana.  Her father, Leo and his father are turned back to Europe, with predictable results.

The second girl we meet is Anna.  She lives with only her mother as her father was killed on 9/11, before knowing Anna had even been conceived.  She lives with the shadow of his death and her mother's depression - talking every night to the only photo of her father that she keeps by her bed.  Anna's mother is roused from despair when the pair get a letter from Hannah.  It turns out she is the aunt who raised Anna's father in Havana.  The pair travel to Havana and there learn more about the lives of Hannah, her brother (Anna's grandfather) and Anna's father.  We also learn how Hannah's father came to have the midtown Manhattan apartment which Anna and her mother now reside in.

The story travels back and forth in time and place - from Berlin to New York, from 1939 to 2011, from on board the very luxurious St. Louis, to Cuba both before and after the communist revolution.

The book was interesting - you couldn't help but admire Hannah's immense spirit in the face of a life time of tragedies.  As I said at the beginning some of the Holocaust parts were rather predictable, but the connections to Cuba and 9/11 were imaginative and kept me focused.