Book Buzz: The Handmaid’s Tale

Book Buzz: the Handmaid's Tale

If you’re like me, you have an ever-expanding list of books TBR (to be read). I do read a lot, but there are many classics heretofore unread, and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was one I regrettably had not gotten to.

Book Buzz: the Handmaid's Tale

The buzz is already out about the Hulu version coming out next week, starring Elisabeth Moss in the leading role. The reviews are glowing. Critics are wowed by the script, the performances and the stunning visual effects. I can’t wait to watch, but I really wanted to read the book first.

Only one problem. I’ve got at least half a dozen review books in my queue. Also, it’s a busy time right now, with holidays and birthdays and family obligations. My reading time is limited.

But thanks to Audible, and these lovely April days, my problem was solved. I’ve listened to the audiobook version during my daily walks and I’m all caught up. Narrated by Claire Danes, it is a riveting novel, especially relevant now.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale?

It is quite a stunning piece of work, as most readers of Margaret Atwood’s feminist novel will agree.

It is the year 2195. The Handmaid’s Tale recounts “the new normal” in the Republic of Gilead, the totalitarian state that exists in what was formerly the USA. A fundamentalist Christian faction has assumed power and stripped women of their rights. In response to a precipitous drop in birth rates, the new government imprisons women who are determined to still be fertile and forces them to work as handmaids, AKA breeding surrogates. Their freedom and their access to the outside is taken away. Their names are changed; their identities are erased.

Offred, the protagonist, once had a husband, a child, and a normal life. When the drumbeats got louder, she and her family tried to cross the border into safety, but she was captured. She clings to hope that she will be reunited with them someday, but her memories of life “before” are slipping away.

With themes of gender oppression, authoritarian leadership and religious politics, some might draw parallels to our current political reality. Read this excerpt and tell me it isn’t chilling:

“I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen,” Offred said. “When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

Will these themes hit too close for comfort? For me, yes. Part of the shock is learning about Offred’s life before the regime came into power. It was so normal, so mundane, just like our lives. And then it’s not. That’s all I will say about that.

Audible always delivers, and as an added benefit, there are extra goodies in this recording. I enjoyed hearing the exclusive content written by Margaret Atwood at the end because it deepened my understanding of the book. The novel extends beyond the original final line, “Are there any questions?,” by adding the questions and answers that the people at that Symposium, occurring in 2195, might ask.

Do you use Audible? You can try it out for a month by going to Audible’s free trial site and have access to hundreds of titles.

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Book Buzz: The New Old Me

A woman of a certain age myself, I have often wondered, is it possible to start over at a point when you’re looking at the prime of your life through the rearview mirror? As the subtitle of Meredith Maran’s kick-ass and winsome new memoir, The New Old Me, indicates, yes you can.

Book Buzz: The New Old Me

Let’s hear it for feisty 60-somethings who pivot out of their comfort zone and find out there can be sweetness from the lemons life has thrown at you. You’ll pardon the cliches.

The New Old Me

Maran’s life had already gone through several iterations before she hit a road block that seemed insurmountable. Her loving marriage splintered and fell apart.  Her best friend died. And on a practical level, what would be her means of support now that her freelance writing gigs had shriveled into nothing?

Quite a heavy load for anyone, let alone a 60 year-old. But this 60 year-old was a life force to be reckoned with.

She applied for a regular day job as a copywriter in Los Angeles and got it, meaning a move from her memory-filled Oakland home, where she had raised two sons and lived with her now-estranged wife. Now, her roots were being uprooted. She would leave all the familiar behind.

You can imagine the culture shock in La La Land. In her new start-up, a clothing company staffed by stylish and whip-thin 20 and 30 year-olds, she felt like a dinosaur. I am the age of these women’s grandmothers, she observed. One of the shocks was the company’s Workout Wednesdays, the one day of the week when everyone came to work in their Lululemon outfits and had their fat measured in front of their colleagues. For a woman who as a home-based freelancer hadn’t worn a bra or pants without an elastic waistband in forever, this was an adjustment.

Maran is a woman who craves friendship and adventure.  She made connections through networking with acquaintances and began to build back her rolodex of friends who were up for a cup of coffee or a hike in the mountains. Bit by bit, she made a new and wonderful life.

I love this woman. She is lusty, funny, and gutsy. She redefines what it means to be an older woman whose expectations for love, friendship and meaning are not diminished by setbacks. How do we live fully, live deeply, when the ballgame of our life is in the eighth inning? That’s what you will learn from The New Old Me, a home run of a memoir.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of The New Old Me. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.

I received a copy of The New Old Me from Penguin Random House for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: A Million Ordinary Days

Book Buzz: A Million Ordinary Days

On the very first page of A Million Ordinary Days, Judy Mollen Walters’ latest novel, I realized that the protagonist, Allison Wheeler, has a physical disability.

Here is the sentence:

Allison Wheeler felt the buzz in her foot the moment before her alarm sounded, waking her out of her best dreams ever.

 

Book Buzz: A Million Ordinary Days

A Million Ordinary Days

This is how I knew Allison had Multiple Sclerosis.

I have become acquainted with MS, not because I have it, but because one of my very dearest friends does. My friend Cathy was diagnosed with 30 years ago after an experience with numbness in her foot. She was walking on the sidewalk of New York City and actually stepped out of her shoe without being aware of it.

Allison has the same issue with her foot, along with other symptoms that are on the spectrum of MS. Like Cathy, some days Allison feels ok, and others, it is hard to get out of bed. Some days she feels like her body is betraying her and is frustrated over her inability to control it.

But also like Cathy, Allison is fiercely independent and refuses to let a disability disable her. She has a job she loves, two daughters she cares for, and an unwillingness to surrender to this disease that threatens to take away her quality of life.

In Allison’s familial orbit, there is her ex-husband, who is still involved and supportive, a teenage daughter applying to college, and an older daughter living many miles away. Each family member is concerned about Allison but at the same time wrapped up in his or her own life.

At work, Allison is a passionate social worker helping unwed pregnant teens. She is devoted to her clients, perhaps even more attentive to them than to her own daughters.  As her condition worsens, she struggles to cope with the limitations that are impacting her performance on the job. At first, she is in denial, refusing to acknowledge the progression of her disease. But the setbacks that used to resolve quickly are now lingering, forcing her to deal with her prognosis.

Walters paints a realistic portrait of the impact of having a chronic illness, and the ripples it causes within a family. Her characters are believable, people you swear you have met in real life.

I enjoyed reading A Million Ordinary Days. I liked seeing the evolution of each character and their relationship to one another. I also like the cover image which conveys a subtle melancholy about the content. But this is not a depressing book at all. Rather, it is a story of perseverance and hope.

For anyone with MS or any disability, it will resonate strongly.

 

I received a copy of A Million Ordinary Days for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write. 

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Women’s History Month: The Rules Do Not Apply

Women’s History Month is resonating strongly with me this year. Not since the 60s have women’s collective voices been so clear and purposeful, as evidenced by the Women’s March and beyond. The political climate seems to have opened a channel, empowering women to candidly share their deepest emotions, their challenges, their fears.

Listening to Ariel Levy’s actual voice narrating her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, I felt that this was one of those times when the audiobook surpassed the written version of a woman’s poignant, wrenching story.

Women's History Month: The Rules Do Not Apply

The Rules Do Not Apply

In her brave but vulnerable whiskey-husky voice, Levy opens with this:

“In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house. Every morning I wake up and for a few seconds I’m disoriented, confused as to why I feel grief seeping into my body, and then I remember what has become of my life.”

Suffused with shock and grief, she obsessed over the choices she had made over the course of her life. Before the tragedy, she had always laughed in the face of convention, finding her own interpretations of sexuality, work, love, marriage. Loss had never figured into her life plan. But then, does it ever?

Levy began her career doing scut work at New York Magazine and landed the plum job of staff writer at The New Yorker in 2008. Her beat was often the offbeat: traveling to rural South Africa to track down Caster Semenya, a female Olympic runner whose gender had been under pubic scrutiny; reporting on a gang of lesbian separatists named Lamar Van Dyke. As she wrote in “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” the New Yorker essay for which she received the 2014 National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism,

I’ve spent the past twenty years putting myself in foreign surroundings as frequently as possible. There is nothing I love more than traveling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it. The first time I went to Africa for a story, I was so excited that I barely slept during the entire two-week trip. Everything was new: the taste of springbok meat, the pink haze over Cape Town, the noise and chaos of the corrugated-tin alleyways in Khayelitsha township. I could still feel spikes of adrenaline when I was back at my desk in New York, typing, while my spouse cooked a chicken in the kitchen.

In fact, it was in Mongolia, on a reporting assignment (and the topic of this essay) that Levy lost her baby. A nagging pain in her abdomen became stronger, and then excruciating. Her baby was born in the bathroom of her hotel room and died minutes later.

Later, her doctor told her the miscarriage had been caused by placental abruption, a rare problem that usually arises from high blood pressure or heavy cocaine use. Or because of the pregnant mother’s advanced age. Levy was 38. It could have happened anywhere, her doctor assured her. Traveling was not the factor. Nonetheless, Levy was wracked with guilt.

Her mother came to stay with her for a while. When Levy asked her, what will become of me, her mother answered, you will be fine. Other times she said, you are not alone. During Women’s History Month let us celebrate the voices of women who can share the universal emotions of grief and loss and survival that let others know that we are not alone.

The Rules Do Not Apply is painful, honest, revealing, and intimate. Levy is unforgiving of herself, but you will want to hug the person behind the voice.

See for yourself. Try out Audible with a free month of accessing a vast list of selections.

 

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I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

I Paid it Forward With Hamantaschen

I Paid it Forward With HamantaschenAlthough the word hamantaschen comes from two German words, mohn (poppy seed) and taschen (pockets), poppy is just one of the flavorful fillings modern bakers like to use in these delicious Jewish cookies.

This was part of the explanation I prepared as I set out to deliver home baked hamantaschen to mostly non-Jewish members of my suburban community. By the quizzical looks on their faces as I proffered the assortment of pastries, many had no clue what they were, who I was, and why I was standing in front of them with a gift. It wasn’t Christmas, after all.

At the prompting of best-selling cookbook author Marcy Goldman on her Better Baking Facebook page, I decided to share the sweetness of homemade hamantaschen with the helpers in my community, to thank the people who deserve our appreciation and don’t always get it.

Would they be hamataschen-receptive?

As I backed out of the driveway, I suddenly felt a prick of concern. In this age of terrorism, would the giftees view me with suspicion? Even if I appeared to be simply a flustered woman in flour-speckled jeans, you never know these days. Were cookies part of an evil plot, to poison innocent citizens just doing their jobs?

“We bake these on Purim,” I recited out loud in the car, “the Jewish holiday that celebrates Queen Esther’s bravery in saving our people.” I glanced in the rearview mirror, plucked a piece of dough from my hair and practiced a disarming smile.

In return for my gift of sweetness, I would ask them just one question.

The Library

I had butterflies as I began my spiel, but the librarian smiled warmly. She assured me  the cookies would be devoured within the hour.

“Can you tell me about something sweet in your life?” I asked her.

I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

She thought for a moment. “My dog, Ellington.”

The Veterinarian

“Hamanta … what?” asked one of the assistants. Was I mumbling, or was it the cacophony of barks and meows that interfered? I spelled the word for her and she wrote it down. The other assistant asked what the fillings were. “Triple Chocolate. Poppy. Cherry. Blueberry.” I mentally counted on my fingers.

“Ooh, yum,” she said.

“And the sweetness in your lives?” I asked.

I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

“My 14 year-old son,” said one. “My dog, Blue,” said the other.

The Hospital

Back in the car, I drove a mile to the hospital and parked in front of radiology, where I get my annual mammogram.

“Oh no, don’t take my picture,” demurred a nurse, holding her hands up in front of her face. “I didn’t wear makeup today.”

A male nurse peered around the corner and said, “Hey, for cookies you can take my picture.”

“What is one sweet thing in your world?” I asked.

I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

“My cats, Fortune and Mason,” he said.

The Police Station

Fourth stop, the township blues.

Amid the hustle and bustle of a hectic weekday afternoon, two police officers readily agreed to be photographed as they held the plate.

“Could you tell me about a sweet …” I began.

I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

“Wait, this is …hamantaschen?!” exclaimed the one on the right as she peeked under the wrapping. “My favorite!”

The Fire Station

The vast garage was filled with shiny fire engines and uniforms hanging neatly on hooks. I called out but no one responded. Around the corner I found a window with an office on the other side. Two firemen were sitting at desks. I didn’t want to startle them, so I rapped softly and held up the goodies so they could see I was not a threat. One of the fire fighters came out to greet me.

“Now, don’t these look good,” he said, accepting the plate from me. “Awfully nice of you. Is this a project or something?”

“It’s just my own way of giving back and saying thank you for what you do,” I answered.

He bowed slightly.

“In return,” I said, “please tell me what is sweet in your life.”

I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

He paused, then said, “My job. I was a volunteer for 10 years and I’ve been full-time for five. I’m lucky to have a job I love.”

The Synagogue

I love Purim at my synagogue. Purim is kind of like Halloween, with funny costumes and parades. Both kids and grownups dress up, and this year the Megillah (the reading of the Purim story) was performed with a Motown theme, and it was hilarious. Hebrew prayers were sung to the tune of golden oldies and the rabbi in costume as Stevie Wonder was a sight to see.

This is Jill, our temple administrator who does a million different tasks every day to keep the congregation running. She doesn’t always dress this way, incidentally.

“Jill,” I asked her as I handed her a tray of hamataschen, “what is sweet in your life?”

I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

“My son, my new daughter-in-law, and my dog,” she said.

The Congressman

Take a look at this photo. See the guy in the greenish-grayish sweater, center stage?

I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

That’s U.S. Senator Bob Casey, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a fundraiser at the home of good friends. Before I left my house I made two plates of hamantaschen, one for the hosts and the other for the Senator.

“I’d like to give Senator Casey these cookies since it is the Jewish festival of Purim,” I whispered to an aide. “Can you help me?”

I knew what I wanted to say. I would tell him that we celebrate Purim because of the bravery of a beautiful and kind woman, Queen Esther, who in today’s parlance would be known as a nasty woman. Because she persisted by convincing the clueless king of a murderous plot, the Jewish people survived.

“No problem,” she whispered back. “Stand by the door and you can catch him on his way out.”

The event came to a conclusion. The Senator was making his way to the front, shaking hands and letting guests take photos. He detoured into the kitchen. I waited by the front door. People were walking past me as they left. Where was he? I walked into the kitchen. No Senator.

“He snuck out the back door. He had to get to his town meeting,” apologized the aide.

My message of sweetness was tabled.

The Bookstore

I am so happy that an independent book store has opened in my community. Yesterday i attended a book launch for my friend Cathy, whose latest excellent book is “Who Moved My Teeth?” Cathy is smart, funny, and a great friend. She also loves my hamantaschen. It’s kind of an inside joke with us.

Her eyes danced when I handed her the tin.

“They’re for me! she announced to the crowd, squirreling them away in a back room before the party began.

“Cath, what’s something sweet in your life?”

I Paid it Forward in Hamantaschen

“My mom is pretty sweet,” she answered.

I approached the owner of the store, Ellen. “I love your shop and I hope it succeeds,” I told her. “Every community needs a bookstore. I can’t wait to come back.”

I didn’t have to ask my question. For Ellen, the sweetest thing must be books.

I Paid it Forward with Hamantaschen

I love baking hamantaschen for my family. Sharing them with those who deserved sweetness but didn’t expect it was in some ways even better.

Based on my small sampling and admittedly unscientific method, I concluded that random acts of kindness are more meaningful than we might think. Paying it forward really does work, especially when it’s a bit out of your comfort zone. We have the capacity to make a difference, one hamantaschen at a time.

In the end, it’s family, it’s home, it’s relationships that sweeten our lives. That will never change.

It’s not rocket science. It’s hamantaschen.

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Book Buzz: The Dressmaker’s Dowry

Book Buzz: The Dressmaker's Dowry

As a first-time novelist writing historical fiction, I have a newfound appreciation for writers who excel at that genre. It is no mean feat to capture the time period authentically in every way: with dialogue, clothing, scenery, etc. I can tell you that Meredith Jaeger does that quite successfully in The Dressmaker’s Dowry, her debut novel about two women separated by 140 years.

Book Buzz: The Dressmaker's Dowry

The Dressmaker’s Dowry

Set in San Francisco and alternating in time between the present day and in the mid-1800s, The Dressmaker’s Dowry features modern day Sarah, a writer fascinated with an unsolved mystery and Hannelore, an immigrant dressmaker who disappeared from the gritty San Francisco streets.

The setting for Hannelore’s story is rich with sensory detail: the acrid stench in the gutters, the clatter of horse carriages careening down the rutted streets, the foreboding sense of danger around every corner.

Hannelore and her friend Margaret are seamstresses in an exclusive dress shop that services the wealthy matrons of the city. They both have younger siblings whom they struggle to provide for. Their home lives are dark and perilous, and they lean on each other for comfort.

One day a man from a privileged family enters the shop and strikes up a conversation with Hannelore, and her life takes an unexpected turn. But the very next morning Margaret has gone missing, sparking fear and a frenzied search. And later, Hannelore disappears as well.

Sarah’s story takes place in her beautiful Marina apartment overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Coming from a modest background and married into a socially prominent San Francisco family, Sara withholds a secret from her past that she feels could destroy her marriage. She is struggling to complete a novel and then discovers a headline from 1876: Missing Dressmakers Believed to Be Murdered. Instantly intrigued, she puts the novel aside and puts on her journalist’s hat, determined to tell the story of these two women from generations ago. She becomes engrossed in the mystery and temporarily puts her insecurities on hold.

In the process of her investigation, she stumbles upon a shocking fact: she and Hannelore may be linked in ways she could have never expected. What is the connection, and will Hannelore’s disappearance ever be solved?

This is a riveting story, full of suspense and drama. As a fan of historical fiction, I love all the research that went into The Dressmaker’s Dowry, especially about the lives of the immigrants who came to San Francisco in search for a better life and endured so much hardship. The photos at the end of the book are a nice touch as well, giving the reader a visual bonus to the satisfying conclusion of the story.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of The Dressmaker’s Dowry. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be chosen randomly. USA addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of The Dressmaker’s Dowry from William Morrow for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

 

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See You at the Movies

See You at the Movies

I’ll see you at the movies.

If you’re a film buff of a certain age, you might recognize that quote from the late Roger Ebert, sorely missed, especially this time of year when movie awards season is underway. Ebert and his colleague/antagonist, the late Gene Siskel, hosted a weekly show reviewing the latest releases. I enjoyed watching their interplay, sometimes funny, sometimes heated, always passionate.

I love movies. Fortunately, so does my husband, so this Sunday night we will get comfy in bed with a bowl of popcorn and settle in for an entertaining event.

And the nominations are …

These days, of course, everything is readily available on the internet, but back in the day, I would be poised with my paper and pen when the announcement was made at 8:40 am on Good Morning America, followed by Gene Shalit giving his impressions of the picks. I loved hearing his take on the surprises and the snubs. RIP, Gene.

Why was I in a frenzy to scribble down the selections? Well, I had to call my husband to let him know RIGHT AWAY which movies we absolutely had to see before the awards ceremony. We both like to see all the nominated best picture films so we can be fully invested.

Alas, this year we have not seen every nominated film, one of them being Hidden Figures. I’m sad that we won’t see it before Sunday, but I did the next best thing and listened to the New York Times best-selling book on Audible.

See You at the Movies

Audible is a cinch to use. I have the app on my iPhone and enjoy browsing the titles and downloading audiobooks to listen to in the house, my car, or when I travel.

The award goes to …

Wow. If you haven’t seen the movie, let me fill you in (and I don’t think this will spoil it). Hidden Figures is a true story about female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

Mind you, this took place in the 1940s, before information was accessible by googling it. These women, known as “human computers,” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.

Among the group of mathematically gifted women, numbering in the hundreds, were three African-American women whose contributions to the space effort have flown under the radar, so to speak, until now.

During World War II, there was a shortage of qualified talent in the aeronautics industry, then in its infancy. Anyone with the “right stuff” was encouraged to apply for positions in the fast-paced Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were math teachers in the South’s segregated public schools.They answered the call and found themselves in the fast-paced Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia.This was in the industry’s infancy: before John Glenn orbited the earth, before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Unbelievable now, but at that time they were required to be segregated from their white counterparts, and the author delves into the impact of this shameful part of our country’s history. Langley’s all-black West Computing group did have the “right stuff” and their contributions helped America achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

These women were trail blazers and incredible role models. Listening to the enormous challenges they faced, and the courage and dignity they displayed in dealing with them, makes this book inspirational as well as educational.

Now I am ready, as Siskel and Ebert used to say, to sit back and enjoy the show.

See you at the movies.

Would you like to try Audible? Click here for your 30-day free trial during which you can download any books you like.

 

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Book Buzz: My Husband’s Wife

Book Buzz: My Husband's Wife

Book Buzz: My Husband's WifeIn the spirit of dark psychological thrillers like Gone Girl and The Couple Next Door comes the debut novel, My Husband’s Wife, the story of two women and one man caught up in a web of dependence and betrayal.

My Husband’s Wife

Author Jane Corry has written My Husband’s Wife from two perspectives.  One of the narrators is Lily, a young insecure lawyer, newly married to Ed. The other narrator is Carla, a lonely and manipulative nine year-old when the story opens. Lily and Ed live in the same apartment building in London as Carla and her single mother, an Italian immigrant trying to eke out a living.

Lily has doubts about her husband’s fidelity from the get go, convinced he is still seeing an ex-girlfriend. Lily herself is conflicted about her true feelings for Ed, and is emotionally drawn to a client that she is defending in a murder case.

Carla is an outcast at school and yearns for stability in her life, which her distracted other can’t provide. She ends up spending time with Lily and Ed while her mother is at work. Ed, an artist, is captivated by Carla’s Mediterranean beauty and likes to draw sketches of her while she visits. He completes a series of drawings that he calls “The Italian Girl.”

Sound creepy? It is.

A jump of 16 years in the timeline brings us to Carla as a young woman, now studying to be a lawyer herself.  Lily at midlife is at the peak of her career as a criminal attorney. She has achieved success, but ghosts from her past continue to haunt her.

Gradually, we learn about the murky backstories of both major and minor characters. The story is replete with entanglements and betrayals, lies and surprises. All that good stuff that makes a book a page turner.

Readers have responded enthusiastically to these complex, brooding thrillers — recently pegged “grip lit” — that feature flawed and unreliable female narrators. They make for a fun read, and they translate well to the big screen. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see trailers for My Husband’s Wife in the future.

By the way, the intriguing title will make total sense by the end of the book.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of My Husband’s Wife. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of My Husband’s Wife from Viking for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Carry Me

Book Buzz: Carry Me

They say that history is bound to repeat itself. I once thought that true evil, the kind that happened in Nazi Germany, could not. The atrocities seemed so remote, so other-worldly that surely this era would live on only in the annals of history.  “Never again” has always been the refrain, a phrase that perhaps over time has lost its meaning.

Because we never imagined that things would be like they are today. 

Book Buzz: Carry Me

I’m not sure Peter Behrens knew when he was writing his devastating and gorgeous novel, Carry Me, that the story would resonate even more keenly in our changed political climate. For me, the parallels were too close to ignore.

Life hums along with its normal highs and lows. You discount the random occurrences of hate mongering. The racism, the violence against marginalized groups. It can’t get an worse, you tell yourself.

And then it does.

Carry Me

Based on a true story (which makes me love it even more), Carry Me is the love story and adventure of Karin and Billy, set in pre-World War II.  The book opens before the outset of World War I. Karin is the daughter of wealthy German-Jewish industrialist Baron von Weinbrenner, and Billy is the son of Buck Lange, employed by the baron as the captain of his yacht. Karin and Billy meet a small children at the baron’s summer house in the Isle of Wight. Billy’s parents serve as caretakers and the two families are close friends.

Behrens skillfully captures the idyllic life enjoyed by these families that is upended by the wretchedness of World War I. The families are separated. Buck is arrested under suspicion of spying for Germany and imprisoned for four years. Billy and his mother Eilin find a room nearby and struggle to survive as they wait for his release. Luckily, he does come home.

After the war, the two families are reunited in Frankfurt. The baron invites Buck to come live with and work for him again on the vast Walden estate as manager of his thoroughbred racehorses. Life settles into a calm routine. Karin attends boarding school and Billy studies locally. They see each other sporadically, just as friends, as kindred spirits.

Billy gets a good job at a firm in town and Karin is happily employed in the film industry in Berlin amidst the rumblings of anti-Semitism. But then … the sporadic skirmishes become more frequent, the harassment of Jews silently tolerated if not endorsed, neighbors’ backs are turned, doors are closed, and finally a full-blown reign of terror ensues.

Jews are stripped of their livelihoods and possessions. Karin’s job is taken away. The baron is targeted as an enemy. His house is ransacked and he is left with nothing. Jews are thrown into prison and taken to concentration camps. Those who are left are frantically trying to book passage on one of the ships departing for America or Israel.

In the mist of the tumult, Karin turns to her childhood friend Billy for comfort. They fall into a romantic relationship and he urges her to leave Germany with him before it is too late. Together they will explore the plains of Texas and New Mexico that have tantalized both of them growing up, he tells her, and then settle in Canada where they will live out their lives in peace.

I won’t tell you what happens, but the ending is an emotional, dramatic conclusion to this utterly captivating story. Kudos to Behrens for the detail and sensitivity with which his tale is spun. A remarkable achievement.

NPR has called Carry Me one of the best books of the year. I completely agree.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Carry Me. Please leave a comment and a winner will be randomly selected.

 I received a copy of Carry Me from Knopf Doubleday for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Leopard at the Door

January weather has been cold and a bit frightful, so snuggling up with my dogs (and my husband) and a good book has my activity of choice. With a fire roaring the fireplace (okay, it was gas) and the dogs curled up next to me, I happily attacked the looming stack of books next to my bed, one of which was Leopard at the Door, a novel so thought-provoking and timely I can’t wait to recommend it to my book group.

Book Buzz: Leopard at the Door

Written by Jennifer McVeigh (who you might recognize as the author of The Fever Tree), Leopard at the Door takes place in a British colony in Kenya in the mid-twentieth century. Across the magnificent and sweeping landscape of East Africa festered political and social tensions as the Africans came into conflict with the British colonists infiltrating their country.

Leopard at the Door

The protagonist is Rachel Fullsmith, a young girl whose British family settled in Kenya. When her mother died in a car accident, twelve year-old Rachel was sent back  to England to be raised by her grandparents, who imposed a strict and unaffectionate lifestyle. She yearned to go back to Kenya, and following her high school graduation, she returned.

What she found was a different Kenya from the one she had known six years before, both personally and politically. A new woman, Sarah, had come into her father’s life and taken over the household, with an imperious style that was shocking to Rachel. Her mother had always treated the Africans who worked for the family with kindness and respect. Under Sarah’s dominion, there was disdain and suspicion. Rachel’s father seemed powerless to go against Sarah’s wishes to get rid of servants who had been with the family for years. Rachel did not understand what had come over her father, and how he seemed to have given his soul to this woman so unlike her late mother.

Still struggling with that loss and confused about her place in this new constellation, Rachel felt her world crashing around her, unprepared for the tough decisions about family, loyalty and justice.

McVeigh does a superb job of creating the scene. You can feel the intense heat of the African sun, the screech of the monkeys, the rustling of the underbrush as a herd of zebras emerged. There was a palpable sense of danger, not just from the possible attack of a lion, but from political uncertainty and the threat of violence and betrayal.

The last twenty pages kept my eyes glued and provided an unexpected twist.

In her many travels to this area of the world, McVeigh researched the history of the Mau Mau Rebellion, a brutal uprising that took place from 1952-1960 and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Africans. I confess not knowing about this conflict until now. It is a terrible chapter of African history that should be told so that our understanding of international human rights violations can grow.

And with her gift of story-telling, McVeigh does exactly that.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Leopard at the Door. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.

I received a copy of Leopard at the Door from Putnam for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

If you like my blog post, please share it!
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