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Reviews by Cathryn Conroy

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North Woods: A Novel
by Daniel Mason
Extraordinary. Brilliant. Masterful. Exceptional. I Adored This Book! (7/7/2024)
Extraordinary. Brilliant. Masterful. Exceptional. Yes, I adored this book. It has to be THE most imaginative novel I have ever read.

The genius of the book is in the structure. Beginning in the 1600s in Puritan New England and extending for almost four centuries, the novel's stories are focused on the occupants of a little yellow house built deep in the north woods country of Western Massachusetts, first as a one room cottage and eventually expanded into four distinct sections. The house stays as the cast of characters living in it changes. Taken together, the tales offer a slice of American, as well as natural, history told in a way you've never read before.
   
Written by Daniel Mason, the book begins with two disgraced Puritan newlyweds fleeing into the forest, running as fast as they can from their outraged village. Chased by the elders, the young lovers manage to escape. The one-room yellow cottage is constructed. The years pass and others come to the house. Two women who are threatened by English soldiers, murder the men, one of whom had been eating an apple just before his untimely and violent death. An apple seed in his intestine eventually develops into a sapling and then a tree with apples that are the most sweet and delicious anyone has ever had. The property becomes an apple orchard. And so the story continues with each subsequent family living in the house. Their unlikely tales are filled with love, passion, heartbreak, betrayal, violence…and otherworldly spirits.

And the point of it all is clearly explained in the last chapter when a character named Nora thinks to herself: "…she has found that the only way to understand the world other than a tale of loss is to see it as a tale of change."

The narrative is quite creative, including whole sections that are told through letters, poetry, musical ballads, journal entries, a true-crime detective story, an exposition on the (almost X-rated) sex life of beetles, and medical case notes. The fact that it works and remains a compelling read from start to finish—and doesn't disintegrate into a hodgepodge of confusion for the hapless reader—speaks volumes about Daniel Mason's writing abilities.

The ingenious plotting, the mesmerizing storytelling, and the sometimes bizarre but always fascinating cast of characters make this a novel for the ages. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's magical!

My only question is this: Why did it not win the Pulitzer Prize, the Booker, and the National Book Award? Because it really is a novel of that caliber.
Sandwich: A Novel
by Catherine Newman
It's an OK Book, but Not a Great One: Ideal Audience Is Menopausal Women (or You Might Not Get the Jokes) (7/6/2024)
This book has a narrow ideal audience: Menopausal women. Otherwise, you might not get the jokes.

The opening chapters are bland, beach ChickLit—disappointing. But if you're part of the ideal audience, stick with it because the story morphs into something with a bit more depth, feeling, and humor, although at its core, this novel is still bland, beach ChickLit.

Written by Catherine Newman, this is the story of three generations of a family who share a beach house for one week in the summer on Cape Cod. The main character is Rachel, whom everyone calls Rocky, a 54-year-old mother of two (mostly) grown children: Jamie who brings Maya, his girlfriend of six years; and Willa, who has finished her junior year at Barnard. Their father, who is perfect in every way from the way he looks to the way he acts, is Nick. In addition, Rocky's elderly and frail parents, Mort and Alice, visit for two days.

Except for Nick and Willa, everyone has secrets, which (of course) are revealed during this week of close living. At times it's quite melodramatic, with Mort's revelation the most shocking of all. Meanwhile, Rocky is wrecked by menopause, and the emotions are roiling inside her as she wrestles with something (secret, of course) that she did years ago.

All the characters have one thing in common: They are dealing with change. Some of them embrace this with joy or anticipation, while others resist it with anger or sadness.

As I write this review, "Sandwich: A Novel," is a hardback bestseller on multiple lists, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. I find this remarkable. It's an OK book, but not a great one.
Wellness: A Novel
by Nathan Hill
An Epic Love Story About a Modern Marriage: Brilliant, Introspective, and Richly Imagined (6/21/2024)
This is a love story. An epic love story about a modern marriage and the bonds that hold couples together and sometimes tear them apart. And what a doozie of a love story it is! This novel is about the stories we tell ourselves and each other and how those stories—true and exaggerated—shape who we are and the lives we live.

Masterfully written by Nathan Hill, this is the story of Elizabeth and Jack—from their meet-cute in 1993 as college students in Chicago to 16 years after they were married, struggling to preserve their relationship as the struggles of jobs, parenting, and real estate take over their daily existence. Their sex life is sputtering to a slow halt amidst the busy-ness so when two polyamorous suitors wheedle their way into Elizabeth and Jack's life, things get interesting and a bit intimidating.

While theirs appears to be a fun and somewhat intimate love story, there is so much more going on because Hill wrote this literary fiction novel from both points of view. More than a romance novel, this is a deep psychological study of Elizabeth and Jack and the forces—childhood difficulties and tragedies, unloving, abusive parents, daunting life experiences—that make them who they are now. We find out what Jack is thinking and doing and then what Elizabeth is thinking and doing—and at times, the two couldn't be more different.

This brilliant and introspective novel is richly imagined and expertly crafted. It made me laugh. It made me sad. It made me curious. But most of all, it made me happy I was reading it. And the ending? It is perfect. Just perfect.

That said, it is a long novel at 600 pages, and quite a few times, it gets bogged down. But keep plowing through that because it's worth it.

Bonus No. 1: Jack is an artistic photographer, and photos (purportedly) taken by him introduce each of the book's sections in a particularly poignant and meaningful way. Pay attention to these photos.

Bonus No. 2: This is more than fiction. Read this book and you will get a primer on several topics, including prairie fires, picky eaters, an introduction to art history, the science behind the placebo effect, the history of condensed milk, post-modern art, and the deepest dive you've probably ever read (at least in a novel) about how the Facebook algorithms work. There is even a bibliography at the end of the novel. Enjoy a bit of nonfiction with your novel at no extra charge!
Tom Lake: A Novel
by Ann Patchett
This Is a Great American Novel: Tender, Nostalgic, and a Really Good Read (6/8/2024)
This incredible book by Ann Patchett deserves to be named a Great American Novel. It has everything: an engrossing, multilayered storyline, deeply developed and vivid characters, and embedded literary themes. It's a ten-star book in a five-star world.

Taking place over two summers—1988 and 2020—this is the story of Lara, a 57-year-old happily married mother of three grown daughters—Emily, Maisie, and Nell—who lives on a cherry farm in Northern Michigan. It's the summer of 2020, and her three unmarried daughters have come home to live during the pandemic. Emily wants to take over the cherry farm someday. Maisie is a veterinary student, and Nell is an aspiring actress. Because the pandemic is raging, Lara and her husband, Joe, are unable to hire the usual number of cherry pickers, so the massive workload falls to the family.

While the four women are picking cherries day in and day out, Lara tells her daughters about the summer of 1988 when she played the role of the tragic heroine Emily in "Our Town" at the Tom Lake summer theater in rural Michigan. It is a story filled with love, romance, heartbreak, and wonder. And her girls are riveted because it was during that summer their mother dated Peter Duke, who later became a famous TV and movie star. It's also the summer that Lara and Joe met. (And the best parts of the story are those Lara imparts only to the reader and not her daughters or husband.)

It's a tender and nostalgic novel about romantic love—young love and married love—and the older-age thoughts of what could have been…if only that had happened. It's a novel about the choices we make when we are young and the impact those choices have on our destiny for decades to come. It's a novel about beauty and suffering.

And the ending: It's heartbreaking and perfect. Just like "Our Town."

This is an homage to Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" that not only pays tribute to the iconic American play set in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, but also goes one step further. Patchett has masterfully interwoven the themes of "Our Town" into "Tom Lake" with subtle plot points from the play that follow throughout the novel. Brilliant!

Tip: OK, this is more than a tip. This is strong advice. Take a couple of hours and read "Our Town: A Play in Three Acts" before you read "Tom Lake." Even if you have seen the play or vaguely recall reading it in seventh grade, read it again so it's fresh in your mind. There are many references and allusions to "Our Town" in the novel, and you will get so much more out of it if you read the play first.

Ann Patchett has cemented her place in my heart as one of my favorite novelists. She is truly an American treasure.
The Husband's Secret
by Liane Moriarty
Big (BIG!) Secrets! A Compelling ChickLit Page-Turner with Major Plot Twists and Turns (5/21/2024)
Ooooh! This is delicious ChickLit and a compelling page-turner with a multilayered plot line, well-developed characters, and (of course!) big secrets. Really, really big secrets from two husbands.

Written by Liane Moriarty, this is the story of three women living in Sydney, Australia, who barely know each other when the book begins but whose stories intertwine in surprising and heartbreaking ways:
• Cecilia Fitzpatrick is the happily married mother of three girls, Isabel, Esther, and Polly. Her husband, John-Paul, is successful and very (very!) good looking. Cecilia is the mastermind of organization, running her household and a lucrative Tupperware business. One day when John-Paul is on a business trip in New York City, she finds a sealed letter he wrote years ago addressed to her. On the front of the envelope it says: "To be opened only in the event of my death." Of course, she opens it even though John-Paul is alive and well. And life will never ever be the same again.

• Tess O'Leary is married to Will, and along with her cousin/best friend Felicity the three run a successful marketing/advertising company in Melbourne. Tess and Will have a six-year-old boy named Liam. Life is wonderful until one evening when Will and Felicity confront Tess with a shocking tale. She flees with Liam to her mother's home in Sydney.

• Rachel Crowley is a widowed grandmother, who dotes on her only grandchild, two-year-old Jacob. She and her husband had two children, but their daughter, Janie, was brutally murdered when she was 17, and Rachel has never recovered or stopped grieving. The case was never solved. Now her son and daughter-in-law are moving to New York, which will leave a giant hole in Rachel's heart when they take little Jacob with them. Rachel harbors a deep-seated anger that is nearly destroying her, especially because she thinks she knows who murdered her daughter.

The writing is light and breezy—just like ChickLit should be—until the major twists and turns in the plot give a real jolt and turn it into a kind of thriller. This is where it gets serious, and Liane Moriarty proves her writing chops as she tackles difficult topics, including marital infidelity, moral responsibilities, and troublesome ethical questions. Themes of betrayal, guilt, grief, and eventual forgiveness are laced throughout the novel.

This is a book that forces the reader to think, to put herself in the place of the characters and answer the almost unanswerable questions with which they are living.

Bonus: There are many spot-on pieces of life advice sprinkled throughout the novel.
You Have a Friend in 10A: Stories
by Maggie Shipstead
Ten Short Stories: Diverse Settings, Fresh Characters, Surprising Plots Focused on the Dynamics of Sexual Power (5/20/2024)
This literary collection of short stories by Maggie Shipstead should win an award for diversity of settings. The 10 stories take place on a Montana dude ranch, a Midwestern college, Paris, a small California town off the Pacific Coast Highway, the backroads of Eastern Europe, an Olympic Village, the economy section of an airplane, a small Irish village overlooking the North Atlantic, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, and a secluded mansion on an unfinished, uninhabited ski resort.

And each story is as diverse as the settings with fresh characters and surprising plots. They all share a common theme: the dynamics of sexual power.

Some of my favorites:
• "The Cowboy Tango" is the story of the consequences and heartbreak of unrequited love.

• "Angel Lust" is the story of a thrice-married man who takes his two teenage daughters with him to clean out his deceased father's home where the angst and anguish of all three of their lives comes to the forefront.

• "La Moretta" takes place in 1974 and tells the story of newlyweds Bill and Lyla while they are on a two-month honeymoon on the backroads of Eastern Europe. The plot devices are brilliant, and the ending is shocking. I think this is the best of all 10 stories.

While each of the stories is edgy and in its own way idiosyncratic, each is also a study of human nature in a mundane place and time—until suddenly the mundane becomes bizarre, tragic, shocking, or outlandish. None is to be taken lightly. While almost all of them are dark and somber, there are occasional elements of light and humor—very occasional.

This is an ideal collection for someone who enjoys and deeply appreciates the short story genre.
Night Watch: A Novel
by Jayne Anne Phillips
This Is Literary Fiction at Its Finest: A Mesmerizing Storyline (5/16/2024)
The writing. Oh, the writing. This is one of those books that demands to be reread—even if it's just a paragraph here and a page there. The writing is masterful, lyrical, and nearly poetic. And this is only one of the reasons this profound, haunting novel by Jayne Anne Phillips won the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The book opens in 1874 when Eliza and her 12-year-old daughter are being driven in a wagon to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia. It is not only the men who fought in the Civil War who are suffering psychologically from the trauma it wreaked. How and why they are here is the heart and soul of this heartbreaking plot that jumps back and forth in time from 1864 to 1874 in a way that is seamless and brilliant—as in, this is the best possible way to tell the story. The plot is convoluted and to reveal anything else here would be revealing spoilers. Suffice it to say that there are several gut-punch plot twists/revelations that left me almost breathless they were so stunning.

In addition to the ingenious, multilayered plot and good old-fashioned storytelling, the characters, who are doing what it takes to survive in unimaginably difficult circumstances, make this emotionally searing novel special. They feel like real people—from their actions and dialogue to the descriptions of their clothing.

While it took a few chapters to get fully immersed in the story, once I did, I was captivated…totally mesmerized. Sometimes I would look up from the page and wonder where I was. This is literary fiction at its finest.
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
by Sean Wilsey, Matt Weiland
50 States. 50 Essays. 50 Writers: An Unvarnished, True-to-Life, and Occasionally Disturbing Portrait of America (5/13/2024)
Fifty states. Fifty essays. Fifty writers. Sew it all together, and you have a portrait of the United States, but it's not one that would be endorsed by any state chamber of commerce. This is an unvarnished, true-to-life, sometimes full of praise, sometimes denigrating, and occasionally disturbing portrait of each of the 50 states—and it's a must-read.

During the Great Depression, the WPA initiated the American Guide Series of the Federal Writers' Project. More than 6,000 writers and researchers wrote a 500-page book about each of the then-48 states. This is not that kind of book. The editors, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, announce their intentions at the beginning, looking for something that is broad-minded and good-hearted, as well as bold, intimate, and funny. They wanted their writers to provide personal anecdotes and strange characters and hidden truths. It is to be a road trip in book form.

While they mostly succeeded, the essays for some states are far superior than others, primarily because the writers told personal stories that felt universal and included information and descriptions unique to that state, making it stand out.

Here are my state essay superlatives that, please note, describe the essay—not the state of the state:
• The top five best:
1. Louisiana
2. South Carolina
3. Florida
4. Pennsylvania
5. Rhode Island

• Most Humorous (as in LOL Funny!): Illinois (with South Carolina a close second)
• Most Ingenious: New York
• Most Poignant: New Mexico
• Most Interesting Facts: Michigan
• Most Poetically Lyrical Writing: Idaho
• Most Nostalgic: New Jersey
• Most Disturbing (Read with Caution): California
• The Weirdest: New Hampshire (with Oregon a close second)
• The Saddest: Mississippi
• Most Boring: Kentucky

The secret sauce is the list of writers. There are several Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award winners, an Academy Award-winning writer, journalists, playwrights, poets, musicians, college professors, and B-list actors. Some of the authors' names are easily recognizable: Anthony Bourdain, Susan Choi, Anthony Doerr, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich, Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Franzen, Cristina Henríquez, Tony Horwitz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lydia Millet, Susan Orlean, George Packer, Ann Patchett, and Jayne Anne Phillips.

Each state essay begins with a list of facts and figures, including the capital, origin of the name, motto, state flower, and population by race and age. At the end of the book, look for a list of tables that will make geography geeks swoon: population shifts, mean time to commute to work, unemployment rate, military recruitment rate, gasoline consumption, breastfeeding rate, toothlessness rate, and many more.

Bonus: The "Afterword" is a conversation with novelist/short story writer Edward P. Jones about Washington, D.C.

The end of the book is an extensive glossary of the 50 states by numbers, including population statistics that will make your head spin—rates of bankruptcy filing, travel time to work, military recruitment rate, population claiming no religion, roller coasters and drive-in movie theaters, toothlessness, obesity, alcohol consumption, and lots more.
Rules of Civility: A Novel
by Amor Towles
A Charming and Imaginative Novel: The Magic of This Book Is in the Remarkable Characters (4/26/2024)
Amor Towles is one of my favorite authors, and it was a delight after 12 years to reread this, his first novel, for my book club. While the plot is compelling, the magic of the book is in the enthralling characters.

The story takes place over one year—1938—opening on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1937 when best friends Katey Kontent (pronounced like the lovely feeling of contentedness) and Evelyn Ross pool their pennies and go to a downtrodden jazz club in Greenwich Village to ring in the new year. There they meet the handsome, rich banker Theodore "Tinker" Grey, who will forever change their lives. Both Katey and Eve are savvy, sassy, and sexy—but on Katey it comes off as smart and sophisticated and on Eve as reckless and brash. Meanwhile, Tinker is harboring a dark secret, one that he only reveals when he's caught.

The three become inseparable pals, doing everything together until one fateful night when they are in a car crash. Guilt and honor combine, and Tinker takes care of the injured Eve until they suddenly become a couple, leaving Katey as a third wheel. But don't count her out just yet. Ambitious Katey is intelligent, resourceful, and willing to take a chance, making 1938 a very good year for her as this poor girl travels in high society and holds her own among the rich and famous.

The prologue takes place in 1966 when a married Katey is at the Museum of Modern Art attending a gala opening of photographic portraits that were taken in the late 1930s on the New York City subways. She is accompanied by her unnamed husband. The prologue gives away some significant plot developments yet to come, but it is done in such a way that makes the book that much more enticing to read.

Masterfully written with remarkable characters, delightful dialogue, and an endearing plot, this charming and imaginative novel is a literary gift.

Bonus No. 1: The title of the book comes from a school writing exercise penned by a young George Washington titled "Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation." The entire document is printed in the appendix. In my opinion, the first and the last rules are bookends for this novel.

Bonus No. 2: Eve's story continues in Amor Towles's latest book of short stories and one novella: "Table for Two: Fictions."
Happiness Falls: A Novel
by Angie Kim
An Overrated Novel: Disjointed Plot, One-Sided Characters, and Hyped-Up Prose (4/21/2024)
This is billed as a "thrilling page-turner": A married father of three children goes missing. Is he dead? If he is dead, was it an accident or murder? Was he kidnapped? Did he skip town with a possible paramour? If you, like me, choose to read this book thinking it's a mystery or thriller, you'll be confused at first…and then disappointed.

It's not a thriller. Or a mystery.

Instead, it's an intelligent treatise on the nature of happiness, a thoughtful, empathetic discourse on the difficulty of human communication and personal interaction and the bias against those who have trouble expressing themselves, and a probe about how much (or little) we know about our immediate family, the people with whom we are supposed to be the closest.

Taking place in June 2020 in a Northern Virginia suburb outside Washington, D.C.—so a few months after the Covid pandemic started and lockdown began—this is the story of Adam Parson and Hannah Park and their three children: John and Mia, who are college-age twins, and 14-year-old Eugene, who is not only autistic, but also has Angelman syndrome, leaving him unable to verbally communicate. Adam is a stay-at-home dad, who spends hours and hours with Eugene, working with him in therapy. On the morning Adam disappeared, he and Eugene had been in a park overlooking the Potomac River. Something happened to greatly upset Eugene, who ran home without his father, something he had never done. Adam never came home. Eugene is the only one who knows what happened to his dad, but he can't communicate.

This story is sidetracked early on as Mia, in whose somewhat annoying/know-it-all first person voice the book is narrated, rambles on and on and on about many other things than the mystery at hand. Perhaps author Angie Kim is trying to mimic a 20-year-old's voice, but some of the sentences are so digressive and longwinded at more than 150 words, that it's hard to keep up as the reader.

I found the plot disjointed, the characters one-sided, and too many of the plot's little twists and turns not believable. The prose was often hyped-up, as if on steroids. While parts of the novel were riveting, most of it was just exhausting to read.

And the mystery of Adam's disappearance? It's resolved in a most unsatisfactory way—that is, if you thought this was a mystery/thriller novel in the first place. It's all about expectations. And that's rather amusing, considering the premise of the novel's treatise on happiness is all about expectations.

I know I'm in the minority. So many professional and reader reviews raved about this book. Kirkus even gave it a starred review. But it just didn't work for me.
Euphoria
by Lily King
A Piercing and Perceptive Tale of the Havoc Wreaked When Egos Collide and Sexual Tensions Run High (4/5/2024)
This is a sneaky book. It starts off at a crawl with the characters and plot unraveling at a slow, deliberate, and measured pace…until wham! At about the halfway point, the book just grabbed me in an intense, haunting, and almost disturbing way. I was sucked into it like quicksand. At first it was nothing, and then it wouldn't let go. And I couldn't stop reading.

Written by Lily King, this is award-winning literary fiction that is a diamond in the rough. It's the early 1930s. American Nell Stone and Brit Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen, are married anthropologists studying primitive tribes living along the Sepik River in New Guinea. Nell has just published a mainstream book (that is, not an academic treatise) on Samoan child-rearing that includes information on their sexual practices. The book is a bestseller, giving Nell publicity and money. All Fen has done is publish a single academic monograph. He is deeply envious of Nell's commercial success, which has also landed them a lucrative grant for their work in New Guinea. As they are leaving one tribe, they meet up with another anthropologist, Andrew Bankson. At first, his friendship supports and strengthens Nell and Fen's troubled marriage, but soon enough Bankson's erotic feelings and sexual desire for Nell create a love triangle that infuriates Fen, who is determined to do something completely inappropriate and unethical—and as it turns out, tragic—to cement his own professional status over Nell.

The book is written primarily from Bankson's perspective in the first person. But other chapters from Nell's perspective are written in the third person, as well as excerpts from her journals that Bankson is given years later. Bankson has his own issues. His father and two brothers are dead, and Bankson has tried, but failed, to die by suicide. His professional life is stalled. He is deeply unhappy. But everything changes when he meets Nell.

And the ending is oh so sad.

This is a piercing, and perceptive tale of the human heart and the havoc that is wreaked when egos collide, sexual tensions run high, and smart people lose their sense of boundaries.

A note: The book was inspired by events in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead and her relationships with her second and third husbands, R.F. Fortune and Gregory Bateson. Some of the story is true to Mead's life, and some of it is imagined.
Fin & Lady
by Cathleen Schine
I Loved This Book! Tender and Sweet, Bold and Brash…and Parts of It Are Hilarious. (4/3/2024)
Oh, I loved this book! Tender and sweet, but also bold and brash. And parts of it are hilarious.

It's the spring of 1964. Fin Hadley is a happy 11-year-old boy who lives on a farm in Connecticut until his widowed mother dies, and he is suddenly an orphan. His only living relative is a 24-year-old half-sister named Lady Hadley, a rich woman living in a posh apartment in New York City with a full-time maid/cook named Mabel. Lady is stunningly beautiful, sometimes cruel, completely unpredictable, and often inattentive, but also kind, tender, and charming. She quickly drives to rural Connecticut in her turquoise-colored convertible Karmann Ghia to retrieve her new charge. Fin moves into Lady's posh high-rise apartment with his dog, Gus, and the two adapt amazingly well. Since there are only two months left in the school year, Lady declines to enroll him, spending their days instead exploring the city, eating ice cream for lunch, and having a wonderful time.

And then the honeymoon is over. Lady resents living in a gilded cage, so they move to the bohemian Greenwich Village, along with the wonderful Mabel, into a half-furnished townhouse and set up housekeeping there. Lady charges Fin with finding her a husband. Three suitors, only one of whom is acceptable to Fin, parade through Lady's life as this free spirit is determined to be married by the time she is 25. Lady may be Fin's legal guardian, but it is Fin who slowly begins to take care of Lady as much as she takes care of him. True to her capricious nature, Lady secretly runs away on her 28th birthday, April 1, 1968, and she takes with her the love and security of Fin's life.

This is also a salute to the turbulent 1960s—from the beatniks to the Vietnam draft. Try as she might, Lady is out of touch with the times, being more a debutante at heart than a hippie.

Written by Cathleen Schine, this heartwarming novel has its surprises, beginning with the mysterious narrator. (Don't waste time trying to figure out who it is…all will be revealed in due time, and when it is, well, it's perfect.) This is a smart, sassy, and delightful story about what it means to be a family even if it doesn't fit the traditional definition. As characters, Fin and Lady are each exquisitely described, so much so that they seem like real people with their little quirks and habits. Adding to the magic, the dialogue is pitch-perfect.

And, oh, the ending…it is the happiest saddest ending I have ever read.

Insightful and perceptive, this novel is not only a pleasure to read, but also brilliantly captures an unconventional meaning of family that filled my heart with love.
Absolution: A Novel
by Alice McDermott
Brilliant! A Story of Vietnam You've Never Heard Before…A Story of the Women, the Wives (3/30/2024)
In a word: brilliant!

This is a book about Vietnam in the very early days of the war, a story you've never heard before. This is a book about the women, the wives of the important men—diplomats, engineers, intelligence officers, attorneys, and military brass. These bright young men were sent to Saigon in the early '60s to do mostly secret work while their pretty little wives threw garden parties and cocktail parties with local servants doing all the work. This is a book about two of those women, who didn't exactly fit the mold.

Written 60 years later as a kind of memoir/letter by Tricia to her friend Charlene's daughter, Rainey, this is the story of a brief stint in Vietnam in 1963. Peter and Tricia are working class Irish Catholics from Yonkers. He is eight years older than she and is in Vietnam working as an attorney for Navy intelligence. They are desperately trying to have a baby. Charlene and her husband, Kent, have been there a while with their three children, 8-year-old twins Rainey and Ransom and baby Roger. Charlene is pretty, smart, bossy, a bit of a bully, and a vivacious hostess; she also has a passion for "doing good" that is wonderful but heartbreaking in who gets hurt in the process. Life is so different for these women, and not only because they are in Vietnam. They are considered nothing more than "helpmeets" for their husbands. Trish often writes, "You have to remember how it was in those days. For women. For wives." They are women on the periphery. Women no one takes seriously. Meanwhile, outside their wealthy, guarded compounds, Vietnamese children are starving, families are living in abject poverty, and people are dying in surprise attacks by the Viet Cong. What is the moral obligation of these protected, pampered wives as they seek absolution in a broken, tragic place that is gearing up for a horrifying war?

Bonus: Barbie dolls have a big part in this book—a part that is both surprising and appalling.

Beautifully written with so many details and lush descriptions that it transports the reader back to this time and place, this remarkable novel is an enlightening and provocative expose on unseen women with unseen lives. This is a story of Vietnam you've never heard before.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler
An Impressive and Intriguing Novel: Colorful Characters, an Unusual Plot, and Pitch-Perfect Writing (3/14/2024)
What a remarkable book! This is a wildly original spin on that classic novel plot of being part of and then breaking away from a dysfunctional family.

Written by Karen Joy Fowler, this is the story of Rosemary Cooke, the younger of two children—or three children, depending on how you look at it. It's the mid-1970s. When Rosemary was one month old and her brother, Lowell, was six years old, their parents decided to raise a baby chimpanzee they named Fern as Rosemary's twin sister. Or something close to that. As a psychology professor and researcher of animal behavior at Indiana University, her father was quite literally bringing his work home and that included six graduate students who assisted with the research. Because of what their parents told them, both Lowell and Rosemary thought of Fern as their sister. They truly loved her. And one day when Rosemary was five years old, Fern disappeared. They were told she went to live on a farm. (Yeah, right.) And then they never talk about Fern again. What really happened to her? That is a central part of the story and how Lowell and Rosemary react to Fern's disappearance both immediately and years later—after all, she was their sister—is very different with long-lasting and difficult consequences for them both. And oh, the ending. It's perfect.

The book is creatively written. It begins in the middle of the story when Rosemary at age 22 is in her fifth year of college at the University of California, Davis. In these early chapters, we get the background on the family so when the story begins at the beginning—when Fern joined the family—we understand the family dynamics.

This is a story about family, memories, and the anguish of facing the truth. The colorful characters, unusual plot, and pitch-perfect writing combine to make this an impressive and intriguing novel.

Bonus No. 1: This is a literature geek's dream book with numerous literary references, including quotes that introduce new chapter from Franz Kafka's short story "A Report for an Academy" about an ape named Red Peter who has learned to act like he is human and gives a report to an academy about how he did this.

Bonus No. 2: If you love words, especially words that are new to you, you will enjoy reading this. I had to use the Kindle look-up feature a lot.
Lazarus is Dead
by Richard Beard
Powerful and Profound! An Ingeniously Plotted Novel That Creatively Combines Fiction and Theology (3/13/2024)
Wow! This is a profound and powerful novel that is an extraordinary hybrid between fiction and theology that left me stunned (in a good way).

Deftly written by Richard Beard, this is the story of the biblical Lazarus—before, during, and after his death. The raising of Lazarus from the dead only appears in the Gospel of John where it is the seventh of Jesus's miracles, the first of which is turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

As Beard tells this tale, Jesus and Lazarus were born weeks apart in Bethlehem, escaped to Egypt with their families, and grew up together in Nazareth as best friends—inseparable friends. Then something happens that tears them apart and each goes his own way, Lazarus to Jerusalem and Bethany while Jesus at first remains in Nazareth and eventually begins his itinerant ministry. Lazarus lives in Bethany with his unmarried sisters, Martha and Mary. One day, just after they hear that Jesus has turned water into wine at a wedding reception, Lazarus gets sick. He brushes it off as nothing much. As Jesus performs each subsequent miracle, including walking on water and feeding the 5,000, Lazarus becomes sicker…and sicker. He eventually develops many illnesses, including scabies, dysentery, malaria, and smallpox. He stinks. Oh, does he smell of sickness and impending death! As his body disintegrates, so does his life because he cannot work or do anything without severe pain. Martha and Mary despair that Jesus, who is only a few miles away, doesn't come and heal their brother.

You probably know what happens next. Lazarus dies. Jesus does come to Bethany, but only after Lazarus has been dead for four days. And then Jesus performs his greatest miracle of all: raising Lazarus from the dead, which occurs one week and a day before he himself rises from the dead on Easter morning. Lazarus is a foreshadowing of Jesus's Resurrection.

But the novel doesn't end here. That's the middle. Beard richly imagines Lazarus's life after he was given the ultimate of second chances. Roman officials, who are threatened by Jesus's ministry, want Lazarus dead—and soon. But Lazarus manages to escape their wily plots and goes on to become one of the greatest disciples of Jesus. Some scholars think he is the mysterious and unnamed "Beloved Disciple" in the Gospel of John.

What makes the novel so special is that this fictionalized account of what Lazarus and his sisters saw, heard, discussed, and felt is interspersed with theological, historical, and biblical accounts of what was happening then. These are not set off with italics or spaced breaks; they are interspersed with the fiction. At first this was a bit disconcerting, but I quickly caught on and think this is the secret sauce that makes this novel so profound and powerful.

This is a deeply researched book. Dozens of theologians are quoted or mentioned from ancient times to modern day, including the Jewish historian Josephus and Khalil Gibran, as well as references to Lazarus by some of the world's literary giants, including Czech writer Karel ?apek, Greek writer Nikos Kazantakis, British authors Robert Graves and Thomas Hardy, Irish poet W. B. Yeats, and Americans Norman Mailer and Eugene O'Neill, among many others.

Another fun literary device is the chapter numbers. The chapters begin at No. 7 and countdown to zero when Lazarus dies. We are now in the middle of the book. Then the chapter numbers begin with zero when he is raised from the dead and continue escalating to No. 7 when the book ends.

This is an ingeniously plotted novel that tells the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in a unique, creative, and compelling way.
The Water Museum: Stories
by Luis Alberto Urrea
Imaginative and Exceptional Collection of 13 Short Stories: Smart, Perceptive, and Thought-Provoking (3/7/2024)
Written by the incomparable Luis Alberto Urrea, this collection of 13 short stories alternates from heartbreaking to hilarious. Almost all of them are about identity and community—those who are safely on the inside and those who are left outside.

Many conclude open-ended, which leaves the reader hanging…and thinking. What happens next? Well, that's for the reader to fill in. It felt frustrating at first, but it also meant I couldn't stop thinking about these stories and their deeper meanings.

In a word: brilliant!

Some of my favorites:
• "Mountains Without Number" is the story of a middle-aged woman barely making a living in a diner she owns and operates by herself in a small, economically depressed town in the desert Southwest. She keeps staring out the window at the nearby butte which is covered in brightly-painted numbers: high school graduation years. The ending is so powerful that I had to stop reading for a few minutes.

• "The Water Museum," the title story of the collection, takes place in a drought-stricken United States where children don't know what it's like to have enough water—so much so that one little town has a museum about water. A middle school field trip there ends in a heartbreaking way.

• "Amapola" is a sweet and sexy teenage love story—until suddenly with an undercurrent of brutal violence, it's the scariest thing I have read in a while. (It won the Edgar Award!)

• "Taped to the Sky" tells the story of a teacher from Cambridge, Massachusetts whose wife has left him. He stole her car and is driving around the country trying to forget her—from Lafayette, Louisiana to Vidor, Texas to El Paso and up the Raton Pass to Colorado and finally to Wyoming where his car dies. What happens then is the heart of this story.

• "Young Man Blues" is the story of Joey, a young man who works on Mondays caring for a wealthy and very sweet 92-year-old man. Joey's dad was in a gang, and is now in prison, but some of his gang member buddies are now threatening Joey. They want to rob the old guy, and Joey is their ticket. Will he be an accomplice?

This is an imaginative and exceptional collection of short stories that are smart, perceptive, and thought-provoking.
The Long Haul: A Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road
by Finn Murphy
An Eye-Opening, Intriguing Insider's Account of What Really Happens When You Move (2/14/2024)
What an eye-opener this is! This is an intriguing book for anyone to read, but especially for those who are planning a move be it locally or long-distance. You'll find out what really happens once the movers cross your doorstep--and it's not all good.

The author is Finn Murphy, a man who is now in his mid-60s but started in the business at age 17. He's seen and experienced it all, and now he's sharing it with us. Murphy is not your typical mover. He grew up in a large middle-class Irish Catholic family in Cos Cob, Connecticut, attending parochial schools as well as a three-year stint at Colby College in Maine. He dropped out one year before graduation to become a full-time mover, much to his parents' chagrin. (Well, so much chagrin that son and parents didn't speak for two years.)

Murphy is a rare breed. He truly loves being a mover. Always has. OK, there were a few years when he walked off the job in anger, but he came back to it. A typical day is 12 hours long and involves much physical work, including packing boxes, hauling heavy furniture up and down stairs, loading a van with precision so everything fits and doesn't roll around in transit, and after all that, driving hundreds or even thousands of miles. Then rinse and repeat on the other end. Don't forget the lousy food, sleeping in the truck, and showering at truck stops.

This well-written book, which is peppered with SAT-worthy vocabulary words (such as "hegemony," "sanguine," "impecunious," and "mendacious") is a memoir of Murphy's professional life as a mover, but is packed with tidbits, warnings, and inside secrets that anyone who hires a mover will be happy to learn.

Among many other things, find out:
• Why movers know more about you in 30 minutes than your best friends will ever know about you in 30 years.
• Why do people dislike and distrust movers? (Even the movers want to know the answer to this question!)
• Some of the retaliatory measures movers may take if you don't show them a bare modicum of respect.
• How much money top movers can make in a year. (Hint: The answer will surprise you!)

The best parts of the book are the many stories about the homeowners and renters Murphy is paid to move. Some are hilarious, some are zany, and some are truly surprising.

This book is humorous, shocking, and filled with mind-boggling revelations about the moving industry.
A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President
by Jeffrey Toobin
Not for the Prudish! A Well-Researched and Balanced Historical Account—Except for the (2/13/2024)
This is not a book for the prudish.

While author Jeffrey Toobin has written a deeply researched and (in my opinion) balanced account of the two sex scandals that enveloped President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s—Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky—there is a definite "ick" factor when reading this book. Ick. Ick. Ick.

The book was published in December 1999 and in a new introduction written in January 2020, Toobin admits what many now think: "Do the lessons of the #MeToo movement change our understanding of what happened between them and how we, as a society, responded to their affair? In a word, yes." Monica was not a victim of sexual harassment as she initiated most of their encounters, including the first one, but she was a victim of the media and public opinion. And no matter what, he was a powerful man—some would say THE most powerful man in the world—and she was an unpaid White House intern at first and then a low-level federal employee at the Pentagon.

This is a historical account and legal analysis of the events that led to the unsuccessful impeachment of Bill Clinton on December 19, 1998 on grounds of perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. Translation: He had a sexual relationship and lied about it.

But even more than this, it is the story of individual people—from Monica Lewinsky to Linda Tripp, from attorneys on both sides who were either defending or trying to upend a presidency under the tawdriest of circumstances, and from a president and first lady whose marriage became the brunt of gossip and late-night TV jokes.

We see people at their worst in this political soap opera that quickly turned from a civil matter to a criminal one:
--Pathetic, lovestruck, and troubled Monica
--Meanspirited, duplicitous, and angry Linda Tripp
--Greedy, foolish, and unhinged Paula Jones
--Petty, conniving, and mean Lucianne Goldberg
--Biased, wrathful, and inept Kenneth Starr
--Lothario and compulsive liar Bill Clinton
--The dawn of Internet reporting, specifically The Drudge Report
--The media that capitalized over and over on the adage that sex sells.

This is a highly readable book with fair reporting on all sides, making it an excellent historical account—except for that "ick" factor.

Ick. Ick. Ick.
The Frozen River: A Novel
by Ariel Lawhon
Magnificent Storytelling! Page-Turning Historical Fiction Wrapped Around a Riveting Whodunit (2/10/2024)
Oh, what a novel! It just pulled me in and wouldn't let go.

Before you read this book, know two important things:
1. Clear your schedule! Once you start reading, it will be really (really!) hard to stop. Yes, it's THAT good.
2. When you finish it, you will have a whopping book hangover.

Magnificently written by Ariel Lawhon, this is page-turning historical fiction wrapped around a murder mystery. It takes place from November 1789 to April 1790 in the small village of Hallowell, Maine during a particularly frigid, icy, and stormy winter. Martha Ballard is a 54-year-old midwife and healer, lovingly married to Ephraim, and mother of six (mostly) grown children. One night in late November after a town dance (called a "frolic"), Joshua Burgess is found dead in the mostly frozen Kennebac River. It takes seven men to haul him out. But this isn't a man who drowned. He has distinct rope burns on his neck, indicating a hanging, as well as bruises and broken bones, indicating a beating.

The plot thickens. The dead man, along with Joseph North, one of the leading and most powerful citizens of the town, are together accused of brutally raping the minister's wife, Rebecca Foster, who becomes pregnant with the baby of one of the rapists. Was Burgess's murder connected to the rape? Outspoken, fearless Martha is determined to solve this mystery and seek justice for the victims even at great risk to herself and her family.

The novel is not only a riveting whodunit with smart twists and turns, but also a brilliant story about life in these difficult times early in our country's history. I was completely captivated reading this imaginative tale with colorful characters, a bit of love and romance, and magnificent storytelling.

Be sure to read the "Author's Note" at the end, as it describes in detail what is and isn't historical fact in this novel. I was quite surprised at how much of it is true. But don't read the "Author's Note" until you have finished the book, as it's filled with story spoilers.

Bonus: Quotations from Shakespeare's plays run throughout the novel, and many of them are the best ones—the ones that so eloquently insult and defame. Read them and laugh!
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
by A. J. Jacobs
One Man Spends a Year Living the Bible Literally: It's Laugh-Out-Loud Funny and Deeply Spiritual (1/31/2024)
This book should come with a warning! Beware reading it in public places because you will be laughing out loud—repeatedly—and you risk getting the same wary looks from strangers that author A.J. Jacobs endured for the year he decided to live biblically. That is, he lived his life, both in his actions and physical appearance, following the Bible as literally as possible.

For quite a few years now, part of my daily spiritual discipline is to read one chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures and one chapter of the New Testament. I get to the end and start over. I'm now on my fourth reading of the Hebrew Scriptures and tenth of the New Testament, and I thought it would be fun to reread this book now that I better understand what Jacobs was trying to do.

Here's the dichotomy of "The Year of Living Biblically": It's both hilarious and spiritually moving—at the same time.

Having grown up a secular Jew—no synagogue, no sabbath dinners, no bar mitzvah—Jacobs decided to read the Bible cover to cover and then try to live out its rules, regulations, and dictums as closely as possible. There are 613 Jewish commandments found mostly in the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jacobs calls himself agnostic, and he was curious as to whether living the Bible's rules would make him more spiritual and turn him into a believer as he was obeying the Ten Commandments, loving his neighbor, and tithing his income.

Unlike most people who believe the Bible literally, Jacobs's goal was not to pick and choose what to do, but to do it all, including stoning an adulterer, keeping the Sabbath, not wearing clothes of mixed fibers, blowing the shofar on the first of the month, visiting a (real) Samaritan, and playing a 10-string lyre. Yes, some of it is farfetched and attention-getting and a lot of it is sarcastic (but never snarky), but almost all of it is enlightening as he tries to live a life where the ultra-religious customs of Abraham's day clash directly with the mores of the secular 21st century.

He split the quest into two parts. He devoted eight months of the year to the Old Testament, and four months to the New Testament, which included consulting with and interviewing experts, including rabbis, ministers, priests, and scholars of all persuasions—from ultra-conservative to liberal. He ponders big questions, such as how can the Bible be so wise as well as so barbaric? And he considers the seemingly impossible, such as how to make an animal sacrifice on the streets of New York City in 2007, how to become a shepherd, and how to best eat locusts. (He succeeds with all three!)

To look the part, he grew his beard, which became an unruly bird's nest (no trimming allowed!), wore only white clothing, strapped a paper with the Ten Commandments to his forehead every day and adorned his clothes with tassels—all following ancient Jewish law. Then he went about his business in New York, including his day job as a writer for Esquire magazine.

The funniest parts of the book are the reactions he gets from strangers, friends, and family, but no one is funnier in this book than his beleaguered wife, Julie, who must put up with so much!

And then this happens: Jacobs unexpectedly becomes closer to God, discovering the wisdom and poetry of the Bible, finding solace in prayer and meditation, and immersing himself in the mystery of God and the universe. Is he still an agnostic in the end? You'll have to read the book to find out.

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