THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Our January mother-daughter book club read was The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It’s an old-fashioned type of book about England during WWII that was published in 2015 and written by an American author who lives in Tennessee and .

The War That Saved My Life is about Ada, a girl born with a clubfoot to a monster of a mother in London. Because she cannot walk due to her deformed foot, her mother has kept her inside a small flat for her whole life, never providing her with crutches or even a pair of shoes. Ada spends her life watching kids out her window and waiting for her little brother Jamie to arrive home from school. Her mother is unspeakably cruel, depriving her of affection, food and stimulation, and occasionally locking her in a roach-infested cabinet under the sink for small transgressions.

When Jamie is given the opportunity to go to Kent in the English countryside to wait out the war, his mother decides to send him but keep Ada behind. Ada instead accompanies Jamie to the train and goes with him to Kent. They are passed over by all of the families who have agreed to take in evacuees, and end up at the home of Susan Smith, a single woman who keeps to herself. Under Susan’s care, Ada learns to live.

After cleaning up the kids and feeding them proper amounts of food, Susan slowly starts building up Ada’s confidence and teaching her about how to interact with the world. As the book progresses, their relationship deepens. Susan has her own demons – she has been ostracized by the town and disowned by her father, presumably because of her sexual preference – but she sees Ada for who she is: a bright girl who has been severely deprived through her life and who deserves respect and opportunity.

The tension ratchets up as the German bombs get closer to Kent and evacuated children begin returning to London. Will Ada and Jamie stay in Kent with Susan, or will their mom show up and lay claim to them?

I liked The War That Saved My Life a lot, as did the girls and moms in our book club. There was a lot to discuss about Ada and Jamie and how they responded to life with Susan. Were they likable? Sympathetic? Was there anything redeeming abut the mother? Would we have taken in evacuated children? How would we have responded to such a dramatic change in our lives?

I listened to half of The War That Saved My Life on audio and read the other half. I liked the narrator, who had a plucky British accent that made Ada seem perhaps a little happier than she really was. But it was a good production and I enjoyed the audio a lot. I needed to finish the book quickly so I chose to read the second half rather than listen to it.

Overall The War That Saved My Life was a good pick for book club and seemed to have been enjoyed by everyone. It’s a good piece of historical fiction for the middle grade set.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal

If you think you share my taste in books, based on reading this blog or knowing me in real life, then I highly recommend you check out J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens Of The Great Midwest. I suspect that it will be one of the top two or three books I read in 2017. It’s that good.

Kitchens Of the Great Midwest follows the life and career of Eva Thorvald, a girl born in Minnesota to a chef with a very refined taste for ingredients and the preparation of food. The story is told through chapters that jump forward in time, and Eva is often just a bit player in those chapters. Stradal changes the focal character each chapter, though characters recur throughout the whole book. Each chapter also features a different ingredient – sweet pepper jelly or venison, for example – which is central to the plot of that chapter. And those ingredients also become a part of Eva’s life and her history. Eva evolves into becoming a world-renowned chef with a sought-after pop-up dinner party that ultimately costs $5,000 per person, and the book culminates in a dinner that incorporates each of the ingredients from the preceding chapters.

I didn’t expect to like Kitchens Of The Great Midwest as much as I did. I don’t generally like books with “quirky” characters or books that focus on food. I’m not much of a foodie. But I absolutely loved this book. Stradal is a beautiful writer with excellent pacing and an unexpected edginess that I adored. (“Since then, he seldom came to mind; she’d thought of him only when she’d made certain mistakes with men in her unmarried years, and the Napa Cabs and Central Coast Pinots he introduced her to had their sentimental associations smudged away after years of repeated exposure.”) Each character was beautifully fleshed out, even the ones who only showed up for one chapter. And if you’re from the Midwest, I think you’ll love this even more than I did.

The structure of the book may be unusual, but it worked beautifully here. I couldn’t wait to see who would show up next.

I listened to the first half of Kitchens of the Great Midwest on audio, and then I couldn’t resist and had to finish the rest in print (though I read it slowly and in limited bursts so as to draw it out). The audio was fantastic, with some chapters narrated by Michael Struhlbarg and some by Amy Ryan (you may remember her as Michael Scott’s girlfriend on “The Office”). I especially liked the narration in “Venison” – authentic accents and a lot of sympathy for the characters. I loved the audiobook and I loved the print.

What a treasure this book is.

WATCHING EDIE by Camilla Way

The first book I finished this year was Camilla Way’s Watching Edie, a suspense novel about two friends who reconnect twenty years after a tumultuous summer that destroyed their friendship and forever changed their lives.

9780735207363Edie, a thirty-three year-old woman living in London, is facing a pregnancy as a single mother with few friends or connections. When she’s at a vulnerable spot before the baby arrives, Heather, a friend from high school, appears at her door. Edie is shaken and upset: what is Heather doing there? Why, after all these years, has she reappeared in Edie’s life after the demise of their friendship? After Edie’s baby daughter is born, when she is at her most vulnerable and alone, Heather appears again, taking care of Edie and the baby as Edie slips into a deep post-partum depression. Edie eventually emerges from the depression and is shocked by the control Heather now has on her life. She ejects her from her apartment and manages to pull herself together.

Meanwhile, Way threads the women’s history through the narrative, flashing back to their high school years and teasing out what happened to cause their estrangement.

I find that reading thrillers like Watching Edie is like inhaling a bag of movie popcorn. It’s addictive and tastes good as you’re doing it, but in the end you feel empty and a little ill. I think Way is a good writer, and I got drawn into this story quickly and was quite sympathetic toward Edie. (Way’s depiction of PPD alone is chilling.) The last chapter, however, when you find out what happened between the two women, was disappointing. The big reveal, while quite upsetting, wasn’t the shock I was expecting. Everything ended very suddenly with the novel taking a sharp turn away from what came before.

There were also some details early in the book that didn’t make sense in retrospect, but I won’t address them here because I don’t want to spoil the story.

I listened to Watching Edie mostly on audio, and I thought the two narrators, Fiona Hardingham and Heather Wilds, did an excellent job. Their accents and voices were easy to distinguish and they really established the two women’s personalities well. I was so engrossed in the audiobook that I eventually picked up the print version and just finished it off so that I could get to the ending more quickly. (Popcorn.)

Not a bad start to the year of reading, but I think I am swearing off thrillers for a while.

 

 

First Book 2017

My first read of 2017 is one that I didn’t get to last year, despite being written by one of my favorite authors: Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh. Check out Book Journey to see what other people are reading on this first day of 2017.

fullsizerender-14

2016 Reading Year In Review

I made it! Finally, I read 52 books in one year. That was my goal, and despite a serious post-election slump, I managed to get there. Here is my 2017 Reading Year in Review.

9780307268129I read a lot of great books, and a lot of forgettable ones too. (If only we had the hindsight of a wrap-up post to know which books would fall into which camp BEFORE starting them.) I worked hard to overcome the draw of the iPhone and really focus on reading whenever I could – no easy feat. Listening to audiobooks definitely helped get my numbers up, thanks to a longer commute starting last March and the ability to listen on my iPhone instead of only in the car.

My goal for 2017: reach 52 again, and read only books I want to read for no other reason than because I am in the mood for them (with the exception of mother-daughter book club books). No guilt!

In 2016, as usual, I tended toward fiction over non-fiction and women writers over men. Some things never change.

Here are my standout reads from 2016:

Best audiobooks were The Risen (read by Richard Ferrone); After You (read by Anna Acton); Not Dead Yet (read by Phil Collins), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (read by Oliver Wymer) and Underground Airlines (read by William DeMerritt).

Most disappointing book: The Excellent Lombards, Jane Hamilton.

Most creative read goes to Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.

For the last several years, I have tracked the Depressing Themes of the books I read, and the lists are always impressive. Here are some of the depressing subjects covered by the books I read in 2016: the plight of poor white America, murder, divorcing parents, alcoholism, the challenge of raising autistic children, death of a brother, unrequited love, car accidents, Brooklyn ennui, the Holocaust, the collapse of the real estate market, dead husbands, miscarriage, dystopia, the Iraq war, PTSD, evil psychopath husbands, cancer, plane crash, slavery, cadaver organ donation, death of best friend, infidelity, Chinese orphanage, emotionally distant parents, kidnapped children, loss of custody. Phew.

The breakdown:

  • 45 fiction, 7 non-fiction
  • 13 repeat authors during 2014: Joyce Maynard, Jane Smiley, Elizabeth Strout, Curtis Sittenfeld, JoJo Moyes, Emma Straub, Jennifer Close, Carolyn Parkhurst, Ann Patchett, Noah Hawley, Jane Hamilton, Leah Stewart and Marcy Dermansky.
  • 19 audiobooks
  • 14 male authors, 38 female authors

How was your 2016 in reading? What were the highlights?

ALLY HUGHES HAS SEX SOMETIMES by Jules Moulin

24501369My final read of 2016 was the (unfortunately named) Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes by Jules Moulin. It’s a light read about Ally Hughes, a professor and single mother in her early 40s with a twenty-year old daughter named Lizzie. When Lizzie was ten, she went to stay at her grandmother’s house so that Ally, then an economics/women studies professor at Brown, could grade papers all weekend. While Lizzie was gone, Ally ended up hooking up with Jake, one of her former students who had come over to do some household repairs for her. Over the course of the weekend together, Ally fell for him, despite their age difference and the fact that he had been her student. Ally decides not to pursue him, though, because she doesn’t want to lose her job and she’s focused on being a mother.

Ten years later, Jake is now Noah, an A-list actor with a new name and an impressive list of credits. Ally, who doesn’t pay attention to pop culture or technology, has no idea who Noah is when he shows up at her house for dinner one night, accompanying Lizzie. She is shocked to find her former crush, Jake, in her kitchen. But is Jake surprised? Or has he orchestrated the evening just to get back in touch with Ally?

Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes was easy to finish, which is what I needed in these waning hours of the year. But it’s a somewhat silly story. Jake is just too good to be true, and Moulin tried too hard to make Ally seem “complicated”. Lizzie was self-absorbed and annoying, despite a twist at the end that shows that she’s actually pretty smart. The dialogue was unrealistic and confusing at times, and there were characters and references who floated in and and out and/or made no sense. It’s basically a romance novel with a little bit of edge.

Again, this was a light read that served its purpose. Not the most fulfilling, but quick and fun and sorta cute.

HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance

27161156I am one book away from my reading goal for 2016. Book #51 was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a “personal analysis” of hillbilly culture and how it has shaped the political views, economic conditions and troubled lives of poor, white Americans. I can’t think of a more relevant book to read in the wake of Trump’s victory, as I think it explains a lot about the election’s outcome.

Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Kentucky, which is hillbilly central. His grandparents moved to Ohio to escape their poor Appalachian roots, but as Vance explains throughout the book, they never really left Kentucky behind. His childhood was chaotic and stressful. His mother married five times and fought addiction throughout most of her life. He lived mostly with his grandmother Mamaw, a strong-willed woman who provided stability and encouragement to Vance as he grew up, but who also struggled economically after her husband died. Mamaw raised him with the hillbilly values and views that she herself grew up with, so even though Middletown was more economically successful than “the holler” where Mamaw and Vance’s mom came from, his family history shaped him strongly.

Hillbilly Elegy was an eye-opening and utterly important read. I learned quite a bit about what so many people in America believe and why they are so disillusioned. One chapter describes why so many poor white families have trouble breaking the cycle of downward mobility: their home lives are chaotic; there is drug usage and physical violence at home, in front of small kids; they don’t study and they don’t make their kids study; they don’t work, even when they don’t have jobs. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

I dog-eared so many pages of Hillbilly Elegy that I could create an entire blog post full of quotes. I found a few passages about why poor whites distrust Obama to be especially powerful. They can’t relate to Obama  – not because of his color, but because he’s so foreign to them in every way: his education, his parenting, where he grew up. The modern American meritocracy worked for Obama, but it won’t work for them.

Vance beat the odds and went into the Marines, then to college and on to Yale Law School. The final chapters of Hillbilly Elegy talk about him having his feet in both words and ultimately feeling comfortable in neither, and about how he has reconciled his upbringing and his education. He ends with some ideas about how to help fix the ills of the white poor, based on his own upbringing and the challenges he overcame.

I highly recommend Hillbilly Elegy. It’s readable, compassionate and absolutely crucial to understanding the country we live in today.