Faithful by Alice Hoffman

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After a devastating accident leaves Shelby with an onerous survivor’s guilt, she wilts into a depression and essentially withdraws from her life.  People around her — particularly her mother — try very hard to pull her out, but it is only when she begins to discover her drive to save mistreated animals that she finds a purpose in her life and a reason for her to actually connect with other people as well.

This story actually starts off so simply and slowly that it seems almost too simplistic.  But it builds insidiously and the characters develop a charm and sweetness that work their way into your heart even before you know it.  Even while Shelby is being rude and harsh, you can only feel sadness for her because of her tragic brokenness.

The writing here is remarkable as well.  It is written in the present tense, which I usually find annoying.  (I can’t even say why that is so.)  However, in this case, I actually think it works.  But Shelby can only live in the moment, in the here and now and has trouble thinking about a future; therefore a present tense is a logical way to express her story.  There is also an intentional stiffness to the writing in general – to the description as well as the dialogue.  It is very effective in relaying how awkwardly Shelby relates to others.  There is only a comfort or warmth that shines through with very few people, and that becomes obvious as time goes on.

This is a heart-wrenching story but very moving and well-written.  Another winner by Alice Hoffman!

 

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Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

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“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

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This is an example of a great idea poorly executed.

Paul is a successful writer of food and wine books who has just been jilted by his girlfriend of 4 years.  In a bit of depression and in a rut, his agent (who of course, happens to be single, intelligent, and attracted to him) sends him to Italy to work on his next book.  In a bizarre set of circumstances, he ends up with a rented bulldozer as his means of rented transportation during his stay.  On his first foray to explore his new town, he happens upon a beautiful, intelligent woman who has run her car into a ditch and lo and behold (!) a bulldozer just might do the trick!

There are a few tiny plot strands that are started in this book that could make the book so interesting that unfortunately are never pursued.  There is the evil-looking man that Paul is jailed with on entering the country (yes, jailed!), there is the boyfriend of the beautiful woman who has a port wine stain, and there are other towns folk who might be more involved in a more interesting plot than they are.  But no, the author chooses to make his former girlfriend as truly shallow and predictable as she is (then why would he have spent the past 4 years with her??), and the ending as neat and predictable as it becomes.

There is so much potential here.  I did finish it, but I spent most of the book waiting for something of substance to happen.  I think I’m still waiting…

 

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

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This is a sad but sweet, young adult novel that was recommended to me by my daughter.  It is the tale of Marin, named after the county in California from which she came, who is stranded, alone, in a dorm room in NY, during Christmas break.  As she anxiously awaits a visit from her friend, Mabel, the memories of her recent, tragic life events come back to her in waves, and she is forced to reconcile what she thought were the circumstances of her life with what was real.

This is a story in which sensuality is very striking.  The cold, stark setting really creates a mood for the whole book.  Descriptions of the freezing snow create a palpably silent backdrop for the awkwardness between the two old friends.  The cold blowing onto their faces as they trek through the snow freezes any attempt at conversation between them.  And when they finally break through, they start to feel the heat come back on – and warmth starts to emanate from one character to the other.  They are in a shop in which Mabel picks up bells, and the reader can almost hear the tinkling of those bells as if we are in that store with them.  Light is used also, contrasted with darkness, such as the stark darkness on a beach on a moonless night, when one’s eyes cannot adjust to the darkness and one has to give up trying to see.  It’s a beautiful way to pull the reader in to each scene.

What initially appears as a simply melancholic book ultimately reveals itself to be a complicated and intimate tale that leaves one thinking about it for days after closing its covers.

 

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

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One evening in the summer of 1989, Lindy Simpson, was raped on her own street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Her story is told from the voice of her neighbor, friend, and devoted admirer, our narrator who lives across the street from her.  As he tells her story and the story of each of the suspects (himself included), he also reveals his own fascination with her and how their history unfolds.

Much teenage angst and struggle pours out in the telling of this story in a very authentic delivery.  There are apt descriptions of very awkward scenes that kids inevitably encounter and the mention of certain moments in history, such as the explosion of the Challenger and the national horror of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes, that enable the reader to directly relate to the feelings the characters feel.  What appears to the outside world as a typical, suburban, upper middle class neighborhood is shown to have a diversity of characters, with shaded pursuits and emotional scars – which is likely what is true of most neighborhoods.

An interesting look at love and family and teenage obsession.

 

Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

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Another absolute winner by this gifted writer!

Pepper Schuyler certainly has her reasons for selling the 1936 Special Roadster Mercedes Benz she’s been working on restoring, but she can’t imagine why the mysterious Annabelle Dommerich was so intent on buying it, and for such a small fortune.  To learn why, the author takes us back and forth between the relative “present” (1966) and the past (1935-) in the telling of the story.  We learn that Annabelle has had to navigate a passionate love for a Jewish German man at the start of the Nazi uprising.  Her complicated history has lead her inextricably back to this car and to Pepper, with whom she will share more in common than Pepper would have ever predicted.

 

Beatriz Williams has a way of creating characters whom you just want to invite over for a drink and conversation.  Her female characters are smart and sharp-witted and yet hopeful and strong.  In addition, she crafts her plots with twists and turns and actually keeps the suspense maintained throughout the pages.  This is a book that you can’t stop but yet don’t want to finish reading, because you just want to stay in the world of these real-life, endearing characters.

Highly recommend this and can’t wait to read other books by her!  (This is my 3rd by her,  I believe.)

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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Love seems to actually trump hate in this frighteningly timely novel by Jodi Picoult.   It begins when a Black labor and delivery nurse, Ruth, begins to care for the baby of a White supremacist couple and the couple insist that she be removed from their case because of her race. As it would happen, Ruth is alone with the baby when the baby stops breathing.  Should she touch the baby and save him, as she is trained to do?  Should she abide by the racist rules the hospital has imposed at the request of this repugnant couple?  What happens next sets Ruth and the couple and ultimately, Ruth’s lawyer, Kennedy, on a road to grappling with race as it is seen from all perspectives.

Little did I know that I’d be reading this amidst the worst campaign and most devastating election outcome in the history of the United States.  The spillage of racism, misogyny, and bigotry that has poured out of the mouth of the Republican party nominee and his bedfellows has unleashed the underbelly of this country and its darkest side.  The election result has spawned a crippling shadow over my whole universe and I know this has been true for over half of this country.  We are embarrassed to call ourselves American, as it associates us with this new, evil and mean rhetoric in the eyes and ears of the rest of the world.  This is not the country I have known to be the home of the free.

And so it was, amidst my deepest disappointment that has sent me into a physical nausea that I cannot shake, that I read how Kennedy, seeking to defend Ruth in her ultimate trial, really tries to understand the day to day psychological beating that Ruth endures as a Black woman in a white man’s world.   The small slips, the subtle differences in perception, and the more overt signs of difference from which Kennedy is protected because of the color of her skin.  And while the 2 butt heads, they also come together because of the genuine efforts to try to understand each other, which is the foundation of the beginning of actually understanding each other.

Unfortunately for this story, love trumps hate in sort of a too perfect way by the end, so that it becomes a little fairytale-like as an ending.  I pray for this country, though, that we can reach an understanding that even remotely approximates this ending – for the good of our present and the good of our future.