Manhattan Beach

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Manhatten Beach by Jennifer Egan.     I am ashamed to admit that this is the first book I have read by Jennifer Egan. Her other books have been on my bookshelf way too long. I have mixed feelings about “Manhattan Beach.” I was a little bored at times, but I am not a historical fiction lover, so a little boredom is to be expected when I read such a book. The author obviously did a lot of research to make this book an accurate portrayal of the World World II/depression time period.

When the book begins, we are introduced to the heroine of the book, Anna Kerrigan. She is just twelve years old and she is obviously daddy’s little girl. Anna and her father have a very close relationship and a special bond. It’s apparent that Anna’s father is involved in some sort of mafia/gangster activity and he begins going away a lot. Because he is gone so much and Anna is no longer allowed to join him, their relationship begins to wither.  

At 19, Anna’s father has disappeared and she becomes the provider for her mother and handicapped sister. She tires of her factory job and pursues her desire to become a diver. It is unheard of for a woman to be a diver and Anna has to fight constantly to fulfill her dreams. Most people would have given up, but she let nothing get in her way.

Around this same time, Anna also becomes involved with a dangerous man who may be able to help her figure out what happened to her father. There are many lovely characters in the story that kept me interested through the boring parts. Another thing I loved about the book is that the sea wasn’t just the setting, but it was almost a character in the novel itself. Jennifer Egan is an amazing writer and I look forward to trying some of her other books, which I understand are much different from this one.

This blurb from Amazon sums it up perfectly: “Manhattan Beach is so rich in detail and atmosphere; such an exploration of underworlds of all kinds, filled with lessons on lifelines and buoyancy and how to bear life’s weight by diving deep into it. Jennifer Egan has masterfully conjured an era we are on the cusp of losing. Her novel is an absorbing story, beautifully written. Its strands of subtle intrigue and quiet heroism make you reluctant to leave each page while eager to get to the next.”M.L. Stedman

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The House We Grew Up In

23782098_10156145202343392_593225045_nThe House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell. 

Meet the Bird family. The Bird children had a picturesque childhood that “was all golden shiny times when nothing could go wrong.” They were a very close family who ate dinner together every night, played in the garden all day, and had huge egg hunts every Easter. Their charming mother left sparkles and sunshine wherever she went and made sure they had the best childhood ever.  Then one Easter, tragedy strikes, tearing the family apart, and nothing is ever the same.

Lorelei is the mother of the family. She is a very eccentric woman who began collecting things in order to deal with her unhappy childhood. Her collecting becomes more and more of a problem until social workers tell her that her hoarding is so bad that her life is at risk.

Meg is the oldest child. Since a young age she has suspected her mother is ill and has constantly criticized her hoarding. She despises her mother’s hoarding and is very outspoken about it. She is the only family member that stands up to her mother.

Bethan is two years younger than Meg. She is happy to live in Meg’s shadow. She is shy, quiet, and easy to get along with. She doesn’t really know herself and she struggles with this through adulthood.

Rhys and Rory are twins and couldn’t be more different. Rory is cool and popular, while Rhys is strange and nerdy. Rhys is the odd child of the family. Everyone else is bright and fun, but Rhys is a little weird and likes to be alone.

After the tragedy that occurs, that I really wish I could tell you about, but I don’t want to ruin the book for you, the family drifts further and further apart, blaming each other for the tragedy until they are pretty much estranged. At their mother’s death they are all brought back together again to deal with their troubled past.

“When someone doesn’t want to help themselves, there’s only so much you can do.”

“No family is indestructible, but were pretty resilient.”

“Maybe if there’d been an explanation we could have all moved on, found closure. We blamed each other because we didn’t know who else to blame. And then we just carried on blaming each other for everything.”

A very good read about a dysfunctional family. My favorite thing to read about!

 

 

without merit

23602342_10156121967253392_1115006092_nWithout Merit is the second book by Colleen Hoover that I have read. She might be working her way onto my favorite author list. Merit Voss is the main character in this book. Her family lives in a remodeled church and they are the epitome of a dysfunctional family. Merit is an angry, quiet teenager who doesn’t like herself very much and likes her family even less. She feels invisible and left out, like she doesn’t matter to anyone. She feels that “without merit” her family would go on as usual and not notice her absence.

Honor is Merit’s identical twin, but on the inside there appears to be nothing identical about these two. They have drifted apart over the years and spent a lot of time arguing with one another. Merit feels that Honor is the beautiful, fun and better liked sister. Honor has her own issues and spends her time falling in love with terminally ill boys.

Merit’s father, Barnaby, turned all their lives upside down when he cheated on their mother. He is married to their mother’s former nurse. Both her mother and stepmother are named Victoria. Her mother lives in the basement and suffers from many mental issues, including agoraphobia, which keeps her locked in the basement with no contact with the outside world. Merit has began to resent her for being absent from her life.

Merit has two other siblings, her brother Utah who she has had a very strained relationship with for the past five years and her four year old stepbrother, Moby (named after Moby Dick) who everyone adores.

As if this family isn’t dysfunctional enough, Victoria’s eccentric and strange brother, Luck, shows up and begins living with the family. Around the same time, Honor’s boyfriend Sagan moves in the other spare room in the house. Merit has very strong romantic feelings for Sagan and is constantly at war with herself trying to bury her feelings.

This family has a lot of baggage, unresolved issues and anger toward one another. When Merit does something very drastic, they finally begin to work through their problems. Merit: “I have so much anger building inside of me, and it has nothing to do with me. It’s anger at almost every single person in this house.” Merit begins to realize that maybe she has been blind and judgmental and wrong about her family all this time.

“I think we all just got to a point where we were waiting for someone else to initiate it, but no one ever did. Maybe that’s the root of a lot of family issues. It isn’t actually the issues people are hung up about for so long. It’s that no has the courage to take the first step in talking about the issues.” “If I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that I don’t know people as well as I think I do.”

“Your whole family suffers from all kinds of things. You shouldn’t feel so special. We’re all a degree of fucked-up.”

““So many people dream of living in a house with a white picket fence. Little do they know, there’s no such thing as a perfect family, no matter how white that picket fence is.”

I read this book in one day. I could not put it down. Colleen Hoover is my new guilty pleasure and I will be reading her other books as soon as I can.

little fires everywhere

23476217_10156111023913392_1951815718_nMia Warren and her daughter Pearl, move into the Richardson family’s rental house in Shaker Heights , Cleveland. Mia is an artist who does not liked to be tied down, who frequently moves around from one place to another and takes random part time jobs to earn just enough for her and Pearl to get by.  The Richardson family is upper middle class, well known in the community and have lived in Shaker Heights their whole lives.  As far as Mrs. Richardson could imagine, living in Shaker Heights is the perfect life in the perfect place.  She always lived an orderly and regimented life. She was brought up to follow the rules and always strove for perfection.  Mia, to her, was a different kind of woman, leading a completely different life.  Mia seemed to make her own rules, with no apology.

Pearl and Mia soon develop friendships with the children of the Richardson family and become entangled in their lives. Pearl has never really had friends before because they have moved so much. Pearl becomes quick best friends with Moody. They are both two lonely, naive teenagers with sensitive personalities and bookish wisdom.  Pearl is timid, quiet and unsure of herself.  Moody is a sweet guy, a romantic at heart.  Moody finds that Pearl is another poetic soul like him and he quickly becomes fascinated with her and her mother.

Pearl begins spending all her time at the Richardson’s home and is dazzled by their domestic perfection and confidence.  There is Lexie, with her golden smile, easy laugh and warmness.  There is Tripp, with his handsome looks and charm.  And then there is Izzy, who cares what no one thinks and often does crazy things. Izzy and her mother have a troubled relationship.  Her mother is always harder on Izzy, always criticizing her behavior, always less patient with her mistakes and shortcomings, always demanding more from her than her siblings.  Izzy soon recognizes a kindred spirit in Mia. She hangs on to her every word, and seeks and trusts her opinion on everything.  She becomes Mia’s assistant and starts pretending that Mia is her mother. Mia sees Izzy as a younger version of herself.

There is a side story to the dynamic relationships between these two families. A custody battle between Mia’s friend and Mrs. Richardson’s friend causes a lot of conflict between the two women who already don’t really like each other.  Mrs. Richardson is a reporter and she begins digging into Mia’s past and we learn all about her buried secrets.  “It was so easy, she thought with some disdain, to find out about people.  It was all out there, everything about them.  You just had to look.  You could figure out anything about a person if you just tried hard enough.”

The book explores what makes someone a mother, is it biology or is it love? The ferocious pull of motherhood and its complexities is a huge issue throughout this novel.

At the end of the book, the Richardson home has been burned to the ground and the fireman says there were actually “little fires everywhere,” just like there were little fires everywhere within these characters. Some fires were put out, some exploded and some burnt to the ground. “Like after a prairie fire…It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow….People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.” Lovely book y’all. Just lovely.

salvage the bones

22751165_10156050808483392_1249325416_oSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a brutally honest, raw, emotional, eye-opening and powerful story about a poor black family living in Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina head their way. The main character of the book is a fourteen year old heroine named Esch. She lives in a rundown shack on a piece of property they call The Pit with her three brothers and her father. Their mother died seven years ago giving birth to the youngest son, Junior. The father is an absent alcoholic who is often angry and drunk. The siblings are close and have pretty much raised their little brother Junior and themselves.

Esch discovers very early on in the book that she is pregnant by the boy she is in love with, one of her brother’s friends, Manny. He is definitely not in love with her and has a girlfriend and Esch is heartbroken about it. I felt so bad for her, being a poor, lonely, fourteen year old girl with a dead mother and low self esteem going through the devastating news she’s pregnant alone.

There were a lot of times in the book where I really wished I could look away but couldn’t. There are some bad dog fighting scenes. Skeeter, the oldest brother has a pit bull named China that he enters in brutal dog fighting contests. He loves this dog more than anything and I could not believe he would put her through such a thing. China has just had puppies and Skeeter spends all his time taking care of her and the newborn puppies. China is a big part of the story.

Near the end of the book, Hurricane Katrina arrives, bringing complete destruction and devastation. The family barely survives. The author gives us a very up close and personal look at what the victims of hurricane Katrina had to go through.

Ward’s writing at times was very poetic: “His skin was the color of fresh-cut wood at the heart of a pine tree.” “The terrible truth of what I am flares like a dry fall fire in my stomach, eating all the fallen pine needles.” “The sky burst to color above us, and then the sun sank through the trees so that the color ran out of the sky like water out of a drain and left the sky bleached white to navy to dark.” “To give life is to know what’s worth fighting for. And what’s love.” There were some lovely passages.

Parts of the book were a little difficult to read and when the book ends you don’t quite know the fate of everyone. Overall, it was a very good book, just not for the faint of heart.

Mrs. Fletcher

22251436_10155998166083392_1225992379_oThis is my first book my Tom Perrotta, but I look forward to reading the rest of his books that have been sitting on my shelf for a long time. Mrs. Fletcher (Eve) is a forty-six year old divorcee who just dropped her son off for college and returns home to an empty nest. Eve is witty and funny and I liked her immediately.  She is lonely and seeking ways to fill the void so she begins watching porn at night and that leads to a sexual awakening of sorts.  “She wanted something else-something different-though what that something was remained to be seen.  All she really knew was that it was a big world out there, and she’d only been scratching the surface.” She decides to take a class at the community college and quickly develops friendships with the others in her class. “The important thing was that she was here, trying something different, meeting new people, making her world bigger instead of hunkering down, disappearing into her own solitude.”

The class she takes introduces us to a whole assortment of other troubled individuals. Margo is the instructor of the class. She is a transgender who is struggling with acceptance from the world and confidence within herself.  “She didn’t really feel middle-aged. In her heart, she was a teenager, still learning the ins and outs of her new body.  Still hoping for her share of love and happiness and fun, all those good things that the world sometimes provided.” “She was there to show the world what happiness and freedom looked like.  You glowed with it. You did exactly what you wanted to.  And whatever costume you wore, you were still yourself, unique and beautiful and unmistakable for anyone else.” “What she wouldn’t have given back then (as a teenager) to hear a trans adult tell her that she wasn’t alone, that happiness and wholeness were possible, that you could find a way to become the person you knew in your heart you truly were, despite all undeniable evidence to the contrary.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Fletcher’s son, Brendan is having a hard time at college. Eve says of Brendan: “He presented himself to the world- as a big, friendly, fun-loving bro- a dude you’d totally want on your team or in your frat.” Even though Brendan comes across this way, it becomes clear that he has a lot of built up issues, a lot of them to do with his father who left the family for another woman when Brendan was younger.  Eve: “…something had gone out of him in the process (of divorce), all the boyish softness and vulnerability that had touched her so deeply. He just wasn’t as nice a person as he used to be- not nearly as sweet or as kind or as lovable- and she couldn’t forgive herself for letting that happen, for not knowing how to protect him, or how to fix what was broken.” “The divorce had left her with a permanently guilty conscience that made it almost impossible for her to stay mad at her son or hold him accountable for his actions.”

Brendan begins to struggle with fitting in, finding friends, and keeping his grades up. “One thing you realize when you’re on your own is how happy the people who aren’t alone look.”  His father comes for a visit during family day with his wife and Brendan’s autistic step-brother, Jon-Jon.  He says of his step-brother, “the whole time he was screaming and thrashing around, I kept thinking how unfair it was the my father loved him so much and held him so tight- way tighter than he’d ever held me-and wouldn’t let go no matter what.” Brendan is jealous of his step-brother and desperate for his father’s love and attention. He has felt neglected by him his whole life.

By the end of the book, most of the characters have managed to find some sort of happiness and understanding. I think this quote from the cover sums up the book perfectly: “a moving and funny examination of sexuality, identity, and the big clarifying mistakes people can make when they’re no longer sure who they are and where they belong.”

“You feel what you fucking feel. You don’t have to apologize to anyone.”

“You couldn’t turn away from the truth just because it ripped your guts out.”

the burgess boys

21868206_10155691102708392_1382185691_oThe Burgess Boys, Jim and Bob, along with their sister, Susan, are a true portrait of a dysfunctional family. Susan’s son Zach, throws a pig head into a mosque and is charged with a hate crime and the family comes together to be a support system for Zach and to try to prevent Zach from going to jail.

Jim Burgess is the successful man in the family. He is a famous attorney in New York and always the one in charge. The more we get to know Jim, the more we realize he is a very angry and unhappy person. His feelings start to come out as Jim has to deal with his family and the memories that resurface from being back in his hometown. “Everything to do with this family depresses me.” “It’s all gone to crap. I’m scared. I think about death a lot. I’m grieving for myself. I’m a sham.” I am a dead man going down. It’s just a matter of time. I could not keep it up.”  Buried secrets are revealed as we watch Jim unravel.

Bob Burgess is a lonely man, divorced, with no children. Bob: “Nothing lasts forever, there is nothing to be counted on.” He also lives in New York. “He thought of all the people in the world who felt they’d been saved by a city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, “Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.”

Susan Burgess is Bob’s twin. She is also divorced and lives alone with her only child, Zach.  Growing up, Susan was most often the recipient of her mother’s so called jokes and disapproval.  Her son, Zach, has become her whole life.

Zach is friendless, quiet, hesitant in all his actions, just not quite right. He was teased mercilessly in elementary school and beaten up in high school. Zach’s father, who often put Zach down, left while he was in high school.  Zach is a lonely, fragile boy who cries and never has friends over.  The hate crime he is accused of has left him even more scared and lonely.

Abdikarim is the man who was there when Zach threw the pig head into the mosque. He is an Islamic immigrant who fled from the violence in his country. He is the perfect example of what immigrants have to face in America these days. Abdikarim was a great character.  “There was a heaviness inside him.  It grew each passing month, to stay or go he couldn’t make that decision.  He felt too old for the spring of excitement to return to him. Too old to learn English.  Without that, he lived with the constancy of incomprehension. THE incomprehension was a danger.  Living in a world where constantly one turned and touched in comprehension-gave the air the lift of uncertainty and this seemed to wear away something inside him.  He always felt unsure of what he wanted, what he thought, even what he felt.”

This book touched on some of today’s controversial issues of immigrants and hate crimes but also explored what family really means. Elizabeth Strout is an amazing novelist.  She writes beautifully.

a stranger in the house

21268160_10155451585333392_209012515_oA Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena

Tom Krupp comes home from work one night to discover his wife has left the house in a hurry, leaving the front door unlocked and her phone and purse behind.   He soon gets a call from the police that she has been in a car accident and is in the hospital with a concussion that has resulted in temporary amnesia.

Karen Krupp ran head on into a light pole after driving way too fast and erratically and has no idea how or why she did so. Soon we discover that there was also a murder the night of her accident and she becomes the prime suspect.

Tom wonders how well he really knows his wife after all. Does she really have amnesia? Could she possibly have murdered a person? Doubts start to cause cracks in their perfect marriage.

Karen also begins to doubt herself, her husband and her friends. By the book’s conclusion, buried secrets are reveled and there is a nice little plot twist at the end. I can’t say much more without giving away the book. You will wonder while reading who is telling the truth and what really happened that night. A good thriller, but not as good as Lapena’s first thriller, “Behind Closed Doors.”

Ordinary Grace

21037855_10155394490383392_1273885445_o.jpgOrdinary Grace

by William Kent Krueger.

“For thirteen –year old Frank Drum, the preacher’s son, it was a grim summer in 1961 in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.” A coming of age story set among an unsettling Minnesota background.

Frank is growing up scrambling for meaning and full of confusion and fear. In the midst of that, a lot of frightening things happen that leave him in a constant state of apprehension. There are so many troubled characters in this book:

Jake is Frank’s younger brother. Jake is often quiet, especially outside of his home because he has a bad stutter: “I don’t like to talk to people because I’m afraid I’ll stutter and they’ll make fun of me. I feel like a freak sometimes.”   There is a lot more to Jake than his stutter. He also has a way of understanding things and seeing things others don’t notice.

Ariel is Frank and Jake’s older sister. Ariel is her parents golden child. Everyone believes she is destined for greatness. She is her mother’s favorite. Ariel is hope for mother’s unfulfilled longings. Jake and Frank adore her. She is their confidante, conspirator, defender, encourager, and supporter.  But is she as innocent as everyone thinks? Frank often catches her sneaking out late at night and he knows something isn’t quite right.

Their father, Nathan Drum, is a preacher. He is also a war vet and is clearly troubled by his past.  There are several other war vets in the book as well. Gus- his father’s friend, a drunk, who lives in the basement of the church. Nathan often says that he owes Gus his life, but we never find out why.

“There are a lot of men left troubled by the war. Every man handles in a different way the damage war did to him. Some men seem to have put their wars behind them easily enough.”

“Whatever cracks were already there the war forced apart, and what we might otherwise have kept inside came spilling out.”

“The truth is when you kill a man it doesn’t matter if he’s your enemy and if he’s trying to kill you. That moment of his death will eat at you for the rest of your life.  It’ll dig into bones so deep inside you that not even the hand of God is going to be able to pull it out, I don’t care how much you pray.”

Emile (Ariel’s piano instructor and Mrs. Drum’s dear friend) returned from World War II blind and disfigured and wanting to feed in isolation on the meat of his bitterness. He lives with his sister Lise who is also a bit of a recluse. Lise is mentally retarded and has no future that anyone could see. They are both two damaged souls that the rest of the family has pretty much abandoned.

The preacher’s wife and mother to Frank, Jake and Ariel is less than delighted with her life as a minister’s wife. She has a fondness for martinis and as things progress that summer, she becomes angrier and angrier at her husband for putting God before his family.

I had great expectations for this book and was a little disappointed that it didn’t quite live up to them. It was a little slow going at first, but once things start happening, I had just had to know how they ended. I hate that I had figured the book out before it ended, but not everyone will.  A literary mystery that isn’t that thrilling, but will really get to the heart of things.

“What is happiness? In my experience, it’s only a moment’s pause here and there on what is otherwise a long and difficult road. No one can be happy all the time.”

the people we hate at the wedding

book cover weedingThe People We Hate at the Wedding is the story of a dysfunctional family that have come together in London for a wedding. All the characters are having some problems of their own. Amid family drama, buried secrets, heartaches and a big fancy wedding, chaos ensues. I laughed out loud a lot.

Paul is the bride’s half-brother. He is beginning to confront the fact that his partner Mark is a real douche bag. Everyone else has seen this all along, but Paul just feels that he doesn’t any deserve better. He also realizes that he is very obsessive. “It’s what he does; it’s how he survives.” He mulls things over so much that “he often finds himself in a state of overwrought paralysis.”

His sister says of him, “He has become curiously unhinged since his father’s death. He’s blindly groping for something-an explanation, someone to blame, a metaphorical or literal lifesaver. Just-something.”

His mother says of him, “Paul was a fragile and sentimental boy who had grown into a slightly less fragile and sentimental man, someone who lived in romantic superlatives, that the truth could so readily destroy. Paul was the boy who was forever searching for ways to escape who he feared he might be, but who always managed to stumble back to himself again.”

Paul’s sister, Alice, is having a crisis of sorts herself. She is having an affair with a married man and has been battling something in her past for a long time. She has been popping pills and drinking excessively, because she would prefer to feel nothing at all. Getting high helps her to temporarily forget.

Alice has harsh feelings toward her half-sister, Eloise for many reasons. She feels rage about Eloise’s perfection and kindness. Her mother treats her like an employee and Eloise like a prize. Eloise was not there for Alice when she went through a traumatic experience. Paul and Alice both sort of resent Eloise because of the charmed life she has lived. Alice begins to unravel and realizes that things have gotten so bad that she is afraid of herself and what she might do.

Eloise feels that no matter how hard she tries to crack Paul and Alice, they just won’t let her in. Her whole life, she has constantly been trying to find equal footing with her half siblings. “Comforting her siblings has always confounded her. She wants to fix them, to save them, to pull Paul and Alice up and out of the messes they’ve made. She worries her own gilded life somehow prevents her from empathizing with them as deeply as she should.” No matter how hard she tries, they always take her the wrong way.

Donna is the mother of the siblings. Paul and she have not been speaking for a long time and she is desperately trying to work her way back in his life. “She thinks of her children. She wants to drill inside their heads, to split them open and excavate their thoughts. She wants to know what they are feeling. Are they enduring the same bowel-loosening cocktail of heartbreak, memory, grief, and above all regret?” Donna is also feeling “daunted by the years of obscure and shapeless loneliness that lies before her.” She smokes weed to make her feel better and it’s hilarious.

After all the drama, they all manage to be there for each other and work a few things out. Paul: “He thinks of the beautiful, gut-wrenching future awaiting them, and the claw marks they’ve left in everything they’ve given up. He thinks of all the times they’ve faced the world on two steady feet, and all the times he knows it will knock them over to the ground. Mostly, though, he thinks that for today, at least for today, they’ll be ok.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Summer Must-Read

A Publishers Weekly BEST SUMMER BOOKS, 2017

New York Post Best Books of Summer

Redbook‘s 10 Books You Have to Read This Summer