Posts Tagged summer reading

book review: Mrs. Fletcher

mrs fletcher

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. Scribner| August 2017| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9781501144028

RATING: *****/5*

It’s amazing sometimes that you read the right book at the right moment. In reading you might feel connected with and find solace in characters on the page. It’s comforting to read relatable characters. Although I’ve never been married and don’t have any children I felt a kinship with Eve Fletcher. She’s figuring out what she wants to do next. Me too. She’s taking a class. Me too. She works as executive director at the senior center. I’ve worked in elder care. An apt description: “It was hard sometimes, dealing with old people, having to cast out the unfortunate souls who could no longer control their bladders or bowels, trying to reassure the ones who couldn’t locate their cars in the parking lot, or remember their home address. It was hard to hear about their scary diagnoses and chronic ailments, to attend the funerals of so many people she’d grown fond of, or at least gotten used to. And it was hard to think about her own life, rushing by so quickly, speeding down the same road.”

After Eve’s son went off to college, she felt a bit adrift and disconnected. She’s looking for meaning. Eve enrolls in a gender studies class at the community college which is taught by a trans woman. Once she starts class she finds how much she enjoys being part of this intellectual experience and academic community. At night she scrolls though her Facebook feed “reminding herself that she wasn’t really alone.” She also finds herself hooked delving into porn. And why not? She’s exploring her sexuality. Her marriage ended after her husband met a woman through the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist.

As he’s effectively done in previous novels, author Tom Perrotta details the tragicomic trials and travails for Eve and those around her. On her family: “Her only real alternative was to drive down to New Jersey and spend a couple of days with her widowed mother and never-married sister, who were living together in the house where Eve had spent her childhood. She was overdue for a visit, but it was always so exhausting to see them—they bickered constantly, like an old married couple—and she just didn’t have the patience right now.” He provides biting and relevant commentary on suburban life– from its quiet moments to its meticulous homogenous appearance. Mrs. Fletcher contains several points of view: Eve Fletcher; Eve’s colleague Amanda; Eve’s son Brandon and Brandon’s classmate Amber. Perrotta excels at developing colorful, flawed characters in an amusing yet warm manner.

Amanda: “Without realizing it, she’d been part of a hipster reverse migration, legions of overeducated, underpaid twenty-somethings getting squeezed out of the city, spreading beyond the pricey inner suburbs to the more affordable outposts, like Haddington, transforming the places they’d once fled, making them livable again, or at least tolerable.”

Amber: “You were supposed to love the weekend, that all-too-brief window of freedom, your only chance to wash away the stink of boredom with a blast of fun. Use it to drink and fuck yourself into a state of blissful oblivion, the memory of which would power you through the work week that followed, at the end of which you could do it all over again, ad infinitum, or at least until you met the right guy (or gal) and settled down.”

Eve: “It had been like this all winter long. She found it difficult to relax after dark—couldn’t curl up with a book, or settle down long enough to watch a movie from beginning to end. She was full of nervous energy, a nagging jittery feeling that there was somewhere she needed to go, something else—something urgent and important—that she needed to do. But that was the catch: there was nowhere for her to go, and nothing to do.”

Definitely one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Perfect summer reading.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Scribner.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Hallie Ephron

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“Vanessa looked back and forth between the photograph and the doll. The doll in Janey’s arms was the right size. It had on a similar long while dress and what was left of its blond hair was tied with a thin ribbon. But the resolution was nowhere near sharp enough to see whether the doll in the picture had a dimple like the one on the mantle, and the wig on the real doll was too threadbare to make a comparison.”

While playing in the yard forty years ago, Lissie’s younger sister Janey went missing. Lis feels guilty and responsible. They’ve never found out what happened to Janey that day. Every year on the anniversary of the sister’s disappearance, their mother, Miss Sorrel, places an ad in the local paper with a picture of the one-of-a-kind porcelain doll Janey had with her when she went missing in hopes that she’ll find answers. This year, the doll returns and it sets off new theories and a few leads into Janey’s disappearance. Someone must know what happened to Janey decades ago.

Set in a fictional South Carolina town, Hallie Ephron’s latest novel–You’ll Never Know, Dear— explores three generations of women and the aftermath of a devastating event. Miss Sorrel makes dolls which look like the little girls who own them. There’s a certain creepiness to porcelain dolls. Her daughter Lis moved home after getting divorced. Lis’s daughter, Vanessa, conducts research on dreams and PTSD in graduate school.

I spoke with Hallie Ephron last month by phone.

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Amy Steele: As the book’s set in the south, what kind of research did you do?

Hallie Ephron: I’d been in the south very little. In South Carolina you find a lot of wealthy northerners there for the warmth of the winter season. I‘d been to Beaufort– a beautiful riverfront southern town– it’s where they filmed Forrest Gump. It’s a very colorful and beautiful place. I wrote half of it coasting on my memories and then realized I needed to go down and spend a few days with my camera and tape recorder. I spent four days absorbing it. The way that the marsh grass is a matted surface on the water, pecan trees … all the details went into the book. I’d already created my characters and I added details. The big thing I learned is that Beaufort has its own storied past. I fictionalized it so I wouldn’t be tethered to the true history of the place.

Amy Steele: Your parents being screenwriters, how did that influence your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I spent a lot of time not writing. I have three writing sisters and I was going to be the one who wouldn’t write. It took a long time to cave and I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have the genes. It’s a hard slog getting good enough to be published. I think my books are fairly cinematic. That’s from a kid growing up in Hollywood in a house that was movie-oriented. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough and I had to be old enough not to care. It took me a lot of time to get confident. There is a story in being a sister and a mother, in the everyday.

Amy Steele: You wrote about three generations of women. What did you like about that?

Hallie Ephron: I like writing about family and generations. I think we’re each so formed by our generation but you’re also formed by your relationship to your family. I particularly like writing older women. I think they’re often caricatured. Especially women over 60 or 70. I take a special pleasure in writing them as human beings with weaknesses. I liked writing Miss Sorrell. She’s kind of a tart individual.

Amy Steele: What do you like about writing in the mystery/thriller genre?

Hallie Ephron: I like figuring it out. I like the click when I figure it out. I usually don’t know the ending when I begin.I just know the set-up. Then I write all the complications, setbacks and challenges and all the while I try to think what does it look like is going on and what do I think is going on. I think in this book the mystery isn’t so much whodunit. I think the reader will realize halfway through who the villain is. But what are the motivations? What are the secrets they’re hiding? That’s what I try to figure out as I work my way to the end.

Amy Steele: How do you organize the novel or your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I have multiple time lines. I think of each character as having a life before the book began and after the book ends. I make a table where each character has a column and the rows are years. I plot the characters in their slots– when they were born and where they went to school– and see where the characters are as their lives progress as well as as the novel progresses. This novel I think takes place over three or four weeks so I do a drilled down version so that I know where the characters are. Even if the reader doesn’t know, I know.

Amy Steele: Do you come up with the characters first or the plot idea?

Hallie Ephron: The first thing I knew is that there would be doll parts. What does that mean? If there were doll parts there would be a doll maker. And who would she be. The story and the character go back and forth as I go along.

Amy Steele: What was the greatest challenge in writing this novel?

Hallie Ephron: I started with two narrators: Lis and Vanessa. I knew I couldn’t be in Miss Sorrel’s head because she knows too much. That was the 20someting and the 40something. I started to ask myself who’s story is this, who’s the protagonist and the answer can’t be both of them. I realized it had to be Lis. She’s the one who lost her sister. She’s the one who had to find her. Lis is the hero. It worked.

Amy Steele: What kind of books do you read?

Hallie Ephron: I read lots of books. I’m reading The Mothers. I just finished Joe Finder’s book. I read lots of books on South Carolina. I powered my way through Pat Conroy’s books. I don’t like horror. I don’t like romance.

You can catch Hallie Ephron speaking about You’ll Never Know, Dear at these events [for more events see her website]:

July 9, 2017
Rockport Public Library
Rockport, Mass.

July 11, 2017
Ferguson Library
Annual Women’s Fiction Night
Stamford, Conn.

July 27, 2017
Maynard Public Library
Maynard, Mass.

August 22, 2017
Bacon Free Library
Natick, Mass.

 
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book review: A Certain Age

certain age

A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams. William Morrow| June 2016| 241 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-240353-7

RATING: 3.5/5*

My summer reading doesn’t vary all that much from my reading the rest of the year. Who are these summer readers? People who only read in the summer, on a beach, outside or on vacation? People who only want to engage in activities that do not require much thought? I read A Certain Age quickly. Now a few weeks later I cannot recall details without consulting the book’s jacket. I’m thinking that this then classifies as a beach read.

New Yorker Theresa Marshall falls in love with her much younger paramour Captain Octavian Rofrano who becomes enchanted with a young woman, Sophie Fortescue, engaged to his lover’s brother. Theresa won’t divorce her husband because she’s comfortable and they have an understanding. Sophie is one of new money. Author Beatriz Williams explains: “Money. They had loads of money now: exactly how much, Father wouldn’t say. Virginia had a better idea, but she wasn’t talking either. All Sophie knew was that her sister’s pocketbook contained five hundred dollars, a sum almost beyond the reach of her imagination a single year ago, and that these five hundred dazzling dollars represented no more than a crumb or two of the daily bread that was now theirs, thanks to the ingenious simplicity of Father’s pneumatic oxifying drill.”

It is that time when one married more often for money and position than love. The novel swings back and forth between the two women as the love triangle becomes increasingly more complicated. Theresa amuses with her attitude and general joie do vive. Author Williams writes: “Naturally I put the whole episode behind me and plunged into a relentless week of—well, of whatever it is I did, before the Boy and I became lovers. I visited friends, I read books, I swam in the ocean, I went to every damned cocktail party between West Hampton and Montauk Point. I believe I compete in a horse show—if memory serves—on my favorite mare, Tiptoe. We won second place over the jumps. The ribbon’s hanging in the stable somewhere.”

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

 
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book review: Sweet Forgiveness

sweet forgiveness

Sweet Forgiveness By Lori Nelson Spielman.
Plume| June 2, 2015| 355 pages |$16.00| ISBN: 978-0-14-751676-3

Rating: ****/5*

An engrossing read that’ll keep you busy at the beach, during a quiet weekend in the woods or in a café drinking ice coffee. Whatever your summer plans, take this fast-paced, creative novel with you. It’s not predictable and contains wonderful, strong characters. It centers on New Orleans local news reporter Hannah Farr and the Forgiveness Stone craze, started by someone who bullied her in school. Hannah received the stones from the Forgiveness Stone creator Fiona Knowles but she’s yet to return a stone to Fiona or send a stone on to someone else.

When her job hits a low spot and she’s interviewing at a station in Denver, she decides that the forgiveness stones might make a good story and allow her to reconcile with her mother who she’s not seen in decades. For years, Hannah’s been involved with New Orleans Mayor who seems to have no desire to be with Hannah full-time. When Hannah decides to head home to see her mother as research for the story it sets many components in motion. Will she be able to come to terms with a dark secret in her past and move on to a happy and productive life?

“The first Monday in July, I load my suitcase in my trunk, struck again by the almost nonexistent footprint I leave these days. I still talk with Dorothy and Jade every day, but I have no job, no boyfriend, or husband or child to kiss good-bye or worry about. It’s both liberating and horrifying, knowing how easily I can disappear. I put the key in the ignition and buckle my seat belt, hoping to drive the ache from my heart.”

Hannah proves resilient and empathetic as she goes through much trauma in re-visiting her past. Her mom is happy to see her. Her mayor boyfriend fears ruining his own reputation and chances for election. He’s not interested in Hannah’s personal despair and makes that quite clear. Finally Hannah understands that he’s been using her as a showpiece, a date to bring around to charity events and political fundraisers. Perhaps he never truly loved her as she loved him. As Hannah faces fall-out from this relationship and her collapsing career at the news station when a segment about the Forgiveness Stones ends up going terribly amiss, she must pick herself up and reinvent herself in another capacity. It’s a quick read and you’ll instantly become invested in Hannah’s challenges and triumphs.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.

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purchase at Amazon: Sweet Forgiveness: A Novel

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in the realm: Summer Reading Part II

henna house

Henna House by Nomi Eve [Scribner]
–It’s Yemen in 1920 and according to the Orphan’s Decree, any un-betrothed orphaned Jewish child will be adopted by the Muslim community. Adela leads a perilous life when her parents die and she flees with her extended family to Aden. The novel covers the traditions of the Yemenite Jews, to the far-ranging devastation of the Holocaust, to the birth of the State of Israel.

angel of losses

The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman [Ecco]
— Marjorie, discovers her grandfather Eli’s notebook– where he chronicled mystical secrets and enigmatic stories. Marjorie embarks on an odyssey that takes her deep into the past, from 18th century Europe to Nazi-occupied Lithuania, and back to the present, to New York City and her estranged sister Holly, whom she must save from the consequences of Eli’s past.

story hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar [Harper]
–psychologist Maggie usually maintains an emotional distance from her patients. When she meets a young Indian woman who tried to kill herself, her professional detachment disintegrates. Cut off from her family in India, Lakshmi is desperately lonely and trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who limits her world to their small restaurant and grocery store. Maggie can relate to Lakshmi because she’s married to an Indian immigrant. She treats her for free in her home office and the women become close friends.

italian wife

An Italian Wife by Ann Hood [WW Norton]
–in turn-of-the-century Italy, fourteen-year-old Josephine Rimaldi gets forced into an arranged marriage with a man leaving for America. She gives birth to seven children and the novel follows Josephine and her children and grandchildren.

american blonde

American Blonde by Jennifer Niven [Plume]
–In 1945, former pilot Velva Jean Hart is a war heroine. Now Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promises to make her a star. They give her a new life story and a brand new name. As Kit Rogers she navigates movie sets, recording sessions, parties, staged romances and real-life romance, finding herself caught between a charismatic young writer and a mysterious musician from her past. When a friend dies mysteriously and the most powerful studio in the world launches a cover-up, Velva Jean goes in search of the truth— risking her own life, as well as her heart, in the process.

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2013 Summer Book Picks [part one]

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The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu [Hogarth Books]

My favorite book of last year is available in paperback. The novel focuses on three young women in the Israeli army. They’re thrown into some truly adult and potentially dangerous situations. While they often think like hormonal, selfish, naïve teenagers at other times these women react with amazing strength, bravery and clarity. Boianjiu includes point of views from Egyptian army members, Palestinians and a Ukranian woman who seeks to emigrate to Israel. A veteran of the IDF, she writes with compassion, humor, modernity and a humanistic approach to the IDF and Israel’s issues with its border nations as well as the United States and the UK.

RATING: *****/5

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The Collective by Done Lee [W.W. Norton paperback, 2013]

“Give up trying. The world doesn’t need another dilettante, and that’s all you’ve ever been.”

This was one of my favorite novels of 2012. While at Macalester college, Eric Cho forms a strong friendship with painter Jessica Tsai and novelist Joshua Yoon. Years later they reunite in Cambridge forming the Asian American Artists Collective [3 AC]. Don Lee masterfully creates characters, story lines and vivid descriptions with the most gorgeous prose. These characters compete with each other, become jealous of one another and support each other’s goals. Lee truly grasps the creative lifestyle–its ups and downs, its starving moments, its triumphant moments.

RATING: *****/5

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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer [ECCO, 2013]

“Why is it so impossible to be a woman? [sic] When has a woman ever been forgiven? Can you even imagine it? For I have seen the plane of being, and nowhere upon it is the woman tracing her life as she always dreamed of it. Always there are the boundaries, the rules, the questions—wouldn’t you prefer to be back home, little lady?—that break the spell of the living.”

This one’s about time-travel however Greta travels in an unusual, ingenious way. It’s engrossing as long as you can get past the issue that causes Greta to time travel—she’s being treated for her depression by electroshock therapy—“Of course this was how our minds had connected in that blue electric flash of madness, across the membrane of three worlds so we switched places, two Gretas and myself, and awoke to different lives.” My issue wasn’t with that but with Greer never mentioning her depression as she traveled from her present day of 1984 to 1918 to 1941. The present Greta just lost her twin brother Felix to AIDS and her longtime paramour left her. In each time period she’s missing a loved one and her life’s slightly different. Even her physical appearance is a bit different. Greer recreates each time period through wonderful description, interesting people and dialogue. It’s a fast-paced novel perfect for summer reading. In the end Greta much decide which time she’s happiest in and in which she wants to remain.

RATING: ***/5

crazy brave

Crazy Brave by Jo Harjo [W.W. Norton, 2012]

Poet and Native American Jo Harjo writes lyrically about her difficult childhood in the Midwest. Her stepfather was an abusive alcoholic; she faced extreme challenges as a Native American and pretty much raised two children on her own. While she recalls these horrific moments in her past she’s also hauntingly philosophical and forgiving. She writes: “In the end, we must each tend to our own gulf of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol.” She also intersperses her tribe’s beliefs but never in an overbearing manner. About having a spinal tap in her youth, she writes: “The spinal column carries personal essence back and forth between earth and sky. The spine is powerful and vulnerable. The procedure was excruciating.” She’s a powerful voice for women and minorities; a truly beautiful soul.

RATING: ****/5

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Summer Reads: a list


–Oksana’s parents traveled in a Romani ensemble until she turned 15 and they moved to the United States.


–focusing on the Chilean coup of 1973 and its aftermath for one woman whose lover is murdered


–wine columnist Jean tries to find out who killed her best friend’s wealthy husband


–this novel, beginning in 1929, follows Laura Lamont from small town Wisconsin to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood


–a complicated mystery as Emily St. John Mandel takes the reader from New York to Florida


–this non-fiction book discusses Marie Curie’s two daughters who went on to make their own marks in the world


–re-imagining famed feminist/activist Margaret Fuller’s life


–who doesn’t like to read about the Victorian era? This is a real-life “Madame Bovary.”


–Downton Abbey, the novel? Perhaps. This novel’s setting is one of London’s big houses in the early twentieth century. It focuses on class differences. It’s based partly on author France Osbournes’ own family railway dynasty.


–memoir about getting through the most competitive Ivy in the country


–a novel about family– dysfunction, bonds, sibling love and rivalry

[Amy Steele]

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