Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for May, 2014

In Grégoire Delacourt ‘s My Wish List, Jocelyne Guerbette lives in Arras, a small French city she calls “a gray place.” She runs a fabric shop, is married to Jocelyn, who works at the Haagen-Dazs factory, and has two grown children. Her mother died when she was young, her father had a stroke a year later and he forgets who she is every six minutes. Her third child was stillborn, a tragedy her she and Jo both struggled with.

But she has a good life, simple but satisfying. Her blog about sewing and knitting, tengoldfingers, has taken off, and she hears regularly from women who say it is making a difference in their lives. She has her friends and family, her work, summer camping trips and the relative comfort of a long marriage. “It’s not the life I dreamed of in my diary,” she explains, but it’s fine.

Her friends Daniele and Francoise play the lottery every week. One week they talk Jocelyne into playing too, and she wins. Eighteen million euros. But instead of celebrating, instead of cashing the check, she waits. And makes lists of what she’d like to do with the money — simple things, “a lamp for the hall table,” an iron, a flat screen tv for Jo, gifts to make her children’s lives easier. She waits, and thinks, and wonders if this change will open the cracks in her marriage once and for all.

Two things struck me about My Wish List — first, that a man wrote so beautifully in a woman’s voice. Jocelyne’s thoughts and feelings ring absolutely true. Second, it’s a brief book but so full. You know just about everything there is to know about Jocelyne in 163 pages. Her childhood dreams. The way her life has unfolded — moments of crisis and the moments of joy. What she fears. Even the way her husband smells, what he drinks, and what her favorite book is.  I really admire the way Delacourt writes so richly and so economically.

I won’t say what happens, but I will suggest you seek out this little book, perfect for a long afternoon in a lounge chair after your errands are done or the garden is weeded. If you’re a middle aged woman, prepare to squirm a bit — the way Jocelyne looks back on her younger self, examines her body, thinks about her life as it could have been and is may feel a bit more familiar than is comfortable. But also prepare to enjoy. Jo says, “I love words . . . . I love it when words sometimes hide what they’re saying, or say it in a new way.” Grégoire Delacourt has done that with My Wish List, much to the delight of readers around the world.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

All Right Here, by Carre Armstrong Gardner, is published by Tyndale House, a Christian publisher. I buy fiction for my public library and I know “inspirational” (mainly Christian) fiction is big business. I figured the demand comes from a sizable segment of the reading public that doesn’t want much sex, violence, or bad language in a book.

But Armstrong includes some of each — sex, violence, and bad language, albeit very gently portrayed — along with adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, premarital sex, and abortion. Granted the abortion serves as a plot point to explain why one of the main characters is kind of a jerk to his wife. But I was pleasantly surprised that although Gardner’s characters frequently pray and mention their faith, their actions speak louder.

Ivy Darling and her husband Nick (he of the jerky behavior) are well rounded characters and I found myself thinking I’d like to hang out with Ivy. Despite her faith, Ivy’s not always sure what she should do or what’s happening in her life. Which I appreciated.

And which makes the book a lot like mainstream women’s fiction. All Right Here is about family and friendship, possibility and love, pain and forgiveness. When the book opens, Ivy is wondering who will live in the run down house next door. It turns out a woman moves in with three kids, and one day, Ivy finds them on their porch, their mother gone. She does not hesitate to take them in.

The kids are black and “from away,” and small town Maine, most especially Ivy’s in-laws, don’t exactly embrace this unorthodox turn of events. I loved Ivy’s unequivocal open hearted compassion for the kids, and her extended family’s similar response. I also liked Nick’s honest hesitation. Gardner addresses something I’ve never read about in mainstream fiction: infertility from the husband’s point of view. And I enjoyed the fact that the path to becoming a family isn’t smooth — Nick is not instantly in love with the kids, and isn’t even sure he likes them much, and that seemed very realistic to me. As did, unfortunately, the open racism the kids face.

An overtly religious point of view isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d recommend All Right Here to readers who like inspirational fiction. Gardner writes well, and despite a few “typecast” folks, her characters are interesting, especially Ivy. The kids are too, and although the musically talented Jada and athletic Hammer are a little predictable, the teenaged DeShaun turns out to be good at inventing fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. Which is just as quirky and charming as it sounds. I appreciated that Gardner didn’t just make him a tough guy or get him in trouble, which is where the book appeared to be heading at one point.

Gardner introduces Ivy’s and Nick’s siblings and parents, but I was more interested in their new family than in the subplots. The way the book ended, and the subtitle (A Darling Family Novel), indicate sequels are forthcoming and that the next one might focus on Laura, Ivy’s troubled twin sister who isn’t too thrilled with her large, close-knit family. That story didn’t interest me as much, but I’m curious enough to want to find out what happens to Jada, Hammer, & DeShaun that I’ll be looking for the next book.

 

Read Full Post »

My column ran today in the Concord Monitor.  I’m pasting my own version below, because the paper always lays the paragraphs out differently. Not sure why. This month I review Tory McCagg‘s Bittersweet Manor, Henry & Catherine Petroski’s The House With Sixteen Handmade Doorsand Lisa Cain‘s Snack-Girl to the Rescue.

May 2014 Mindful Reader Column

by Deb Baker

Part time New Hampshire resident Tory McCagg’s debut novel Bittersweet Manor tells the stories of three generations through a conversation between two women. Matriarch Gussie Michaels has removed her “beeper bracelet” and left assisted living on a chilly April day. Her granddaughter Emma has come to tell her she will sell the family home on Bittersweet Lane in Poquatuck Village, Connecticut. Or will she?

The conversation wanders, as Gussie’s mind does, through memories and decisions, misunderstandings and betrayals. As Gussie struggles to piece together recollections and Emma’s mind flits over everything that has led to her tenuous decision, McCagg shows how family roots are a tangle of places, the people who inhabit them, hopes and ambitions. She also examines the way these roots impact each generation.

McCagg sometimes tells too much about what her characters are thinking, instead of letting readers connect the dots. For example in this passage where Emma’s aunt “Alyssa cleared her throat, but with no intention of saying anything, because, thinking back, into the confusion of the past, she realized that sometimes betrayal is done with the best of intentions. And that the helpless reaching back to change everything . . . was impossible.”(Commas and ellipses are the author’s.) It’s also hard to read about relatives being unkind to each other. And yet, it sometimes rings true. A Thanksgiving scene fraught with awkward tension is certainly realistic.

Unlike some family sagas, Bittersweet Manor offers no easy resolution. It ends on a hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, note — family, for better or worse, are a constant. Alyssa observes “That’s the beauty of being sisters . . . we aren’t best friends or anything. But here we are forced together, again and again, to learn something.”  The Michaels’ family mostly don’t learn, and their privilege is hard to relate to. But McCagg leaves readers sensing that Gussie has given Emma what she needs. And that struck me as real too – family wounds don’t magically heal, but a searing conversation can sometimes clean out what’s festering.

The House With Sixteen Handmade Doors: a Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship is the story of a small house off Spinney Hill Road in Arrowsic, Maine where author Henry Petroski, a professor, engineer, and writer, and his wife Catherine, a writer and photographer, live part time. It’s also the story of Bob Phinney, who built the house; a meditation on craft, engineering, and design; a tribute to Mainers; and an appreciation of the history and traditions of Arrowsic and the surrounding area. And it is utterly charming. Henry Petroski writes with admiration and insight, as in this passage: “The vertical set of drawers stacked beneath one end of the kitchen counter contains units of five distinctly different heights, which are graduated in subtly increasing size from top to bottom. The more I look at Phinney’s work the more I see, and the more I see the more I marvel at his attention to detail, proportion, order, and unity.”  Catherine Petroski’s photographs are a great asset for non-engineer readers. If you’ve ever wanted a simple summer home, or wondered how things were built when most work was done by hand, or loved a small town in coastal Maine, this book will delight you. It’s always a pleasure to read a book that is both erudite and intelligible, and the Petroskis’ affection for their subject makes this one even more satisfying.

Lisa Cain, Ph.D., western Massachusetts mom, and creator of Snack-Girl.com, distills her personal experience making healthy changes into Snack Girl to the Rescue! A Real-Life Guide to Eating Healthy, Slimming Down, and Enjoying Food. There are no strict rules here, nor easy answers. Her advice is not new –read food labels, pay attention to portions, eat more homemade food and less junk, meet your cravings with healthy alternatives, get off the couch and move. But the way she addresses these issues is refreshingly down-to-earth. Having trouble getting to the gym? Cain recommends walking five minutes a day and building from there. She wisely notes that everyday empty-calorie temptations are unavoidable, and offers sensible ways to manage things like office treats, parties, and holidays. She also advocates finding “comfort without food,” dealing with other kinds of “emotional eating,” choosing well in restaurants and grocery stores, and preparing affordable, nutritious, satisfying meals and snacks that will help you lose or maintain your weight. The book includes one hundred recipes; my family tried and liked Lentil Curry Stew, Roasted Vegetable Quesadillas, and No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls. If you’ve struggled with being healthy, Cain’s advice is simple and supportive: “Don’t give up. Just keep trying new things and good stuff will happen.”

Read Full Post »

The parent of a member of Teen the Younger’s FIRST Robotics team showed me the first page of Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, The Rook at a competition: Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine. The scar on the inner left thigh is there because I fell out of a tree and impaled my leg at the age of nine. The filling in the far left tooth on the top is the result of my avoiding the dentist for four years. But you probably care little about this body’s past. After all, I am writing this letter for you to read in the future. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. The answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is because I knew it would be necessary.”

I was hooked after reading just that much. Rook Myfanwy Thomas is a young woman whose brilliant administrative skills have landed her in position of considerable power and influence in the Court, which functions as a sort of cabinet, in very hierarchical secretive British agency called the Chequy. The cover of the book says “On her majesty’s supernatural secret service,” which sums up the Chequy nicely.

O’Malley has a smart, dry sense of humor in the same vein as Douglas Adams and Tom Holt. Myfanwy Thomas reminds me of another brilliant heroine of genre-bending crime/humor/fantasy literature, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next. The Rook is deliciously funny but it’s also a spy thriller with cunning villains, power-hungry plotters, and international subterfuge. And it’s a fantasy, with characters whose powers include visiting people’s dreams, making and emitting chemicals through the pores, or turning one’s body into metal.

Mfanwy is endearing because she’s both a modern career woman, angsting about her wardrobe, what people think of her, and whether she’ll ever have a normal life, and a high powered agent fighting paranormal wrongdoing and protecting the world as we know it from the world as she knows it. Oh, and hunting hunting the mole who wants her dead and stripped her memories right out of her brain.

A rollicking, intriguing read full of fascinating characters, a witty and page-turning plot, and plenty of supernatural elements existing in our own world. This is the kind of book perfect for the hammock or lounge chair. The lawn can wait until you find out whether the Grafters are invading or not!

 

Read Full Post »