Book Review: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, October 2021)

My last in-person visit to my local public library was on Thursday, March 12, 2020, to pick up a bag of books “just in case” the whole coronavirus thing was really a thing. Ha! The K-8 elementary school where I taught sent us home that day with instructions to be prepared to teach via Zoom starting on Monday, March 16, 2020. Little did we know!

Standing at the new fiction shelves, doing my favorite kind of shopping (not a shoe girl, a handbag girl, or even a jewelry girl when it comes to shopping), one of the librarians walked by and said, “Have you read Olive Kitteridge?” I told him no, and went to look for it, but their copy was checked out.

Fast forward to November of 2020, when I had long ago exhausted the bag of books from the library and had started to use Libby/Overdrive to feed my obsession with reading, I remembered that conversation with the librarian and downloaded Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Within just a few pages I realized that I wasn’t reading an ordinary book written by an ordinary author. This was something completely different. I was torn between flying through it in one setting or dragging it out to make it last longer.

Because I was late to the Strout party, I was lucky enough to download its sequel, Olive Again, just a few months later. After I blew through that one, I I read I Am Lucy Barton. Once I was fully vaccinated, I made my maiden voyage to my favorite used bookstore and bought copies of all the Strout titles there. I’m so happy I have some from her back list to still read: Anything is Possible (which I think is part of the Lucy Barton storyline), The Burgess Boys, Abide with Me, and Amy and Isabelle. Needless to say, I am a fan for life.

And then, NetGalley listed Strout’s latest novel, Oh William! Of course I requested it immediately. And just like the others, I could not put it down. I don’t know how she does it, but it only takes a paragraph or two and I’m fully immersed in whatever world Elizabeth Strout chooses to create.

To be honest, Oh William! to me is quite different from Olive Kitteridge and her sequel. Where I found Olive’s story to be inspirational and uplifting, I found Lucy and William to be raw and disturbing. How can I like both ends of the spectrum? Well, I guess that is the magic of Strout’s writing for me.

In promotional materials for Oh William! Strout said it was inspired by the deep secrets being unearthed by the DNA ancestry testing now available. While that is one of the story arcs in Oh William!, I didn’t consider it to be the main one. For me, the book is a continuation of the continuous untangling and re-tangling of the relationship between Lucy and William. In both Lucy Barton and Oh William, there were things I loved about both Lucy and William, but there were also things I hated about both those characters as well. Just like in real life, nothing is all good or all bad, and these two people are perfect examples of that. Strout even has a quote on her website that drives this home, “It is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.” Murky completely describes Lucy and William’s relationship, where each individual is a character in the story and their relationship is another character entirely.

For fans of Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! will be another home run. If you are new to Elizabeth Strout’s work, may I suggest you start with Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. There you will find the brilliance of how Strout intertwines thirteen short stories with Olive being the constant that ties it all together in her flawed and fascinating way.

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC of this new novel.

Book Review: The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (Soho Crime, June, 2021)

Author Sujata Massey brings us once again to 1920s colonial India with the third in a series featuring protagonist Perveen Mistry, the first female lawyer in Bombay, India. I discovered the series while recuperating from a broken ankle during the summer of 2019. As I was house-bound (relying on crutches and/or a knee scooter to get around) for over twelve weeks, I gobbled up books about foreign places from different historical time periods. Massey’s were some of my favorites.

I know quite a lot about the UK during this time period, thanks to a lifelong obsession with the British royal family, however, I knew almost nothing about India, other than Queen Victoria (who reigned from 1837-1901) being named Empress of India during her reign. While England held most of India beginning in the early 1600s, the Massey series takes place in the last decades of colonization, just before India’s independence from England in 1947.

In books 1-3 of the series George V is monarch of England. For a quick look at the last four monarchs, to orient yourself as to time periods, see my graphic below. It’s interesting (at least to me, lol) to note that in the year 1936 there were THREE monarchs: the death of George V in January, the abdication of Edward VIII in December, and the ascension to the throne of George VI in December, all in 1936, yet there has been only one monarch on the throne since 1952: Elizabeth II, who on September 9, 2015, surpassed Queen Victoria as the longest ruling monarch. Victoria ruled for 63 years and nine months while Elizabeth II as of this date-May 25, 2021-has ruled for 69 years, 3 months and 2 weeks.

Book 1 in the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Crime, 2018), introduces the reader to Perveen Mistry, and her family’s law firm. (Perveen does first appear in a prequel novelette which was published in a story anthology called The Usual Santas, Soho Crime, 2017.) In this book, which moves at a fast pace with strong writing, everyone must come to terms with Perveen’s ground-breaking entry as a female into the practice of law where she is sent to investigate a will being disputed by the three wives of a wealthy Muslim mill owner. Only she can handle the legal work in this case as the three wives live in purdah and only speak to males through screens like nuns living in a cloistered convent.

Book 2, The Satapur Moonstone (Soho Crime, 2019), takes place outside of Bombay, deep in the remote Sahyadri mountains, where Perveen is sent to settle a dispute with the females of the Satapur royal family, once again something she is uniquely qualified for as the women in the family also live in purdah and do not speak to men outside their family.

Book 3, The Bombay Prince, takes place in November of 1921, when all of Bombay is in an uproar over the pending visit of Prince Edward (later to become Edward VIII in 1936 for just ten months before his abdication). Bombay is divided between those who are seeking independence for India (including Mahatma Gandhi) and those who wish to remain under British rule. Perveen is swept up into the mystery of a female college student’s suspicious death, which occurs just as the Prince’s entourage is making its way through the streets in front of the college. Was the student murdered because of her secret involvement with a radical student group? Did she commit suicide as a political statement over the Prince’s visit? Did a family member silence her for going against her father’s wishes?

One of the things I love most about this series is learning about the history of India during this time period, but also about the Parsi, people of the Zoroastrian faith who fled Iran following the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Perveen’s family is Parsi, and through her and the cases she and her father work on, the reader learns about the unique customs of the Parsi in India. Given the time period and the conservative religious nature of the Parsi people, Perveen adheres to a strict social etiquette between men and women, as well as between women of different ages and social classes. This also adds interesting texture to these cozy mysteries. I also love the relationship Perveen and her family have with their servants, particularly Mustafa the butler and John the cook.

The Bombay Prince was very good, demonstrating an ongoing confidence of Perveen in her work and appreciation of it by her father, further development of the friendship of Perveen and Alice, good news for Perveen’s brother and sister-in-law, and a continuation of a relationship between Perveen and a British gentleman that started in book 2. However, I did not find the pacing as quick and exciting as book 1, nor did the writing seem as sharp in this third installment. In trying to find the killer of the young college student, Perveen racks up quite a list of suspects, and the trails of each of these red herrings began to blur a bit for me. In the resolution of the plot, I felt as though there were many loose threads still dangling from the red herrings. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I look forward to Perveen’s next adventure, where I hope her British gentleman becomes a more prominent part of her personal story.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an e-book of this novel pre-publication.

Book Review: Twenty-one Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks

This book was just not for me. Some readers have noted that the format was not to their liking, but I didn’t mind the story unfolding in list format. I’ve read other books not told in traditional narrative prose, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary told in journal entries and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen told in emails and inter-office memos, and enjoyed the newness of both of those. However, the content of this book was a different story. While I love novels about bookstores and booksellers, there wasn’t enough of that in this book to hold my interest, along side the lists of the less savory parts of Dan’s life. In fact, I just didn’t like the main character Dan enough to care about his lists. Not every book is for every reader, and I’m happy to read another of Matthew Dicks’ books to see if they suit me better!

Thanks to NetGalley for the e-book of this novel.

Book Review: Learning to Talk to Plants by Marta Orriols (Pushkin Press, June 2021)

From the publisher: “By turns devastating and darkly funny, Learning to Talk to Plants is a piercingly honest portrayal of grief – and of the many ways to lose someone.”

The publisher’s quote above really says it all for this book, at least for me. I rated this book a 4/5, mostly because it was so painful to read. I personally didn’t find the dark humor noted above, but there was quite a bit I found devastating.

Marta Orriols has truly taken the reader to a dark place, albeit she works herself out of it and into a better place. The writing is strong, however, there were times when I was unsure who she was talking to, or if it was a flashback vs. the present time. Since it is written in first person, protagonist Paula, a neonatal physician, is often talking to herself, to the object of her grief, or to a coworker. Because everything in the novel becomes marked by “before X happened” or “after X happened,” flashbacks taken out of present time but still written in present tense are sometimes a bit confusing.

The book is peppered with medical jargon, most of which is self-explanatory taken in context, but it seems realistic for a doctor to speak—and think—that way, even when we hear her inner dialogue. I found Paula’s professional life, also filled with darkness and loss, to be interesting. I was not as intrigued by her post-trauma love life and attempts at returning to the vitality of her pre-trauma life.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an e-book version of this new novel.

Book Review

You Had Me at Pet-Nat: A Natural Wine-Soaked Memoir by Rachel Signer

When requesting this book to read and review, I thought it was a novel, but I have since learned from Googling the author that it is a memoir. I’ve read a lot of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs over the years, and this book reads more like a novel to me.

It was great learning the difference between natural wines and wines that were not made using the natural process. I didn’t know any of this before; I drink wine, of course, but I only know that I like all reds and only some white, and that rosé is my favorite. Now, I will look at labels and the names of vineyards in a different way.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more if it was less technical with respect to the world of wines. For me, the abundance of information on certain labels, and some of the terminology unique to the wine-making industry, were a bit overwhelming, and the story of the author’s life took a backseat. However, it is clear that the author knows a great deal about wine in general, and about natural wines specifically. I also felt like at times the author was trying to shock me with some of her decisions, both those planned as well as those spontaneous.

Overall, a novel about a waitress-turned-wine expert and her journey through Europe might be more entertaining to me. Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced ebook edition of this book to read.

Book Review: Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

By Anthony Doerr (Published June 12, 2007 by Scribner Book Company)

I realize I am late to joining the Anthony Doerr fan club, but I tore through this piece of nonfiction in less than two days. I probably would have finished it in one day had I not stopped so frequently to admire his wide breadth of knowledge in many different subjects as well as his just outright beautiful command of the English language. He may not be fluent in Italian after living there for an entire year, but man, oh man, can he write!

Years ago I discovered the British tv series A Year in Provence based upon a book of the same title written by Peter Mayle, a British advertising executive who retires to an ancient farmhouse in Provence, France, to try his hand at writing a novel. The novel doesn’t happen, and when his deadline for turning in the novel arrives, Mayle submits instead his journals of his four seasons in the French countryside, where he renovates the farmhouse with limited use of the French language. Novels do come later, but his reputation as a writer is secured with his anecdotes of the people in the nearby village, the glorious meals he and his wife share, and his outsider’s view of the beauty of the Provence countryside, earning him an award for best travel book of the year and eventually Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French government.  

Part memoir, part travelogue, part nature journal, Four Seasons in Rome comes about in much the same way as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. It is the story of how Anthony Doerr and his wife Shauna come to live in Rome for one year, after learning a mere twelve hours after his wife gave birth to twin boys of winning an award he had not applied for nor knew existed. Doerr is shocked to learn that he was anonymously nominated based upon his collection of short stories and debut novel. The award he won was none other than the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, that comes with a one-year stipend to live and write in Rome. Along with the stipend comes a furnished apartment next door to the Academy, where he is also given a studio as an office from which to write a novel of historical fiction about occupied France during WWII. 

Much like Mayle, however, he does not actually write the novel, which he later completes back in Idaho, and which subsequently brings him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. What he did write was a journal of his time in Rome, his love affair with the city itself, and his journey as the father of bambini gemelli in a foreign land. 

While strolling his twins over nearly every square foot of Rome, he observed nature–especially trees and birds, architecture, and the many fountains of Rome. It is here that his writing really shines. I’ve been to Rome twice, and I might as well have been blind-folded both trips as I didn’t see any of what he so eloquently describes. His descriptions of the birds and trees reminded me of one of my favorite books, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which also won Dillard the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. 

Doerr doesn’t actually come out and say he is Catholic in this book, but if he isn’t, he is the first non-Catholic I have heard of who was so consumed by the health and ultimate passing of Pope John Paul II. Having myself attended the outdoor Mass on Easter Sunday in St. Peter’s Square in 2004, which was the last time Pope John Paul II celebrated Easter Mass, I could feel what he was experiencing in a poignant way. Standing in the brilliant sunshine, we could see how frail and pale the Pope was, and we feared that he was nearing the end of his earthly journey. I really enjoyed reading Doerr’s memoir of his year in Rome, even the difficult parts surrounding his wife’s hospitalization. And now I’ll do something I should have done much earlier, read Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

Yummy – Sweet and Savory

Yesterday I made the cookie dough for the “Rye – Chocolate Shortbread” from Dorie Greenspan’s forthcoming cookbook. Today I sliced and baked. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this one says it all!

They were everything shortbread should be: crumbly, sandy, buttery, melt in your mouth goodness. But, they also have the crunch of the rye flour and the swooning feeling you get from really good quality dark chocolate. Not overly sweet and just perfect with a pinch of sea salt on top. An unusual cookie, but a lovely addition to afternoon tea!

Thank you again to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.

Book Review: Baking with Dorie by Dorie Greenspan

You had me at rye-chocolate shortbread! 

I love to read and I love to cook, so it is only natural that I read cookbooks like some people read novels: devouring them and savoring every last headnote, ingredient list, recipe, footnote, and photograph. Baking with Dorie by Dorie Greenspan is no exception. I can't wait to purchase a copy of this glorious compendium for my very own, and bake my way through it. 

I enjoy apple pie and chocolate chip cookies like the rest of us, but I really love cookbooks that have great recipes for the all-American standards combined with favorites from other parts of the world. This brings me to the rye and chocolate shortbread. In a recipe named "Tenderest Shortbread Four Ways," Greenspan pushes us way out of our comfort zone (and what could be more comforting than a piece of buttery sandy shortbread with a steaming hot cup of tea) into a recipe for "The Rye-Chocolate Shortbread." I love rye bread, and during the pandemic have spent some time trying to copy the Harvest Loaf from my favorite farmers' market. I know it's part rye and has lots of other seeds and grains in it but I'm not there yet. Now I know just what to do with one cup of the rye flour I ordered for those experimental loaves. I can almost taste that Rye-Chocolate Shortbread now!

Since the pandemic has all but frozen us in place, I loved being able to dream about all the places I'd love to travel to, where I could eat all of the goodies from those places that are detailed in Greenspan's book, like the "Biscuits Rose" sold all over the Champagne region of France, the "Glenorchy Flapjacks" straight from New Zealand, or the "Szarlotka" apple dessert from Poland. 

This is a beautiful cookbook, with gorgeous photos of almost every recipe in it, but what I really appreciate is what Greenspan includes at the end of each recipe: Playing Around. Here she details how to add/delete ingredients to make the recipe your own, or to bring it back to what it was originally, like the updated World Peace Cookies 2.0 recipe on page 160. In the Playing Around section at the end of the recipe, she gives instructions on how to go back and make the original World Peace Cookies. But, hey, since the 2.0 version calls for 1/2 cup of rye flour and a pinch of cayenne pepper, I'm going to start with the updated one!

The publication date for this beauty is October 19, 2021. Being a Libra, I think this would make a wonderful birthday present that I will gift to myself!

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Sweet Taste of Muscadines by Pamela Terry

This debut novel by Pamela Terry represents authentic Southern storytelling. It unfolds slowly and the reader gets to know the characters and plot as it is peeled back layer by layer like a Vidalia onion. So much of the story resonated with me as a Louisiana native whose mother was first generation Scottish-American. Lila’s descriptions of Scotland are so on point and very similar to my exact feelings when I visited my mother’s homeland for the first time. While I have never tried my hand at weaving, I have visited a sheep farm in the Highlands and purchased wool that I later knitted, so I feel as though Lila and I share that connection. Terry’s descriptions of the Highlands and of the rocky coast of Maine drew me in as much as her pitch-perfect portrayal of Southern customs.

When I first started reading The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, I was struck by how Terry’s writing reminded of the style of writing and quirky characters of Beth Henley, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart dealt with family secrets, loss of parents, and siblings/cousins trying to deal with it all. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that Terry was a fan of Henley’s work. The opening line of the prologue to Terry’s book, “The first time Mama died…” is so very intriguing and so very Southern.

I loved this book, and I look forward to future works by Pamela Terry, especially if she continues with her unique blend of Southern and Scottish themes. My only criticism, and it is slight at that, is I would have preferred that there be some unsolved business at the end, or at least one end of the ribbon not completely tied in a neat bow. Otherwise, a very enjoyable read indeed.

Thank you to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this novel (Ballantine Books-March 16, 2021) in exchange for this review.

Tween and Teen Book Recommendations

March 12, 2021, marks the one year anniversary of the last day I was teaching in my classroom last school year. It seems like eons ago, doesn’t it? This pandemic and quarantine business has been very difficult and challenging for all of us. With the third quarter of the 2020-2021 school year almost over, we will soon be starting our summer break!

Here are some interesting pieces of literature that would make for perfect summer reading for tweens and teens. Some of these titles are for more mature teens, and some may be considered middle grade reading level, but the stories were compelling enough for me to want them on my list. These are things I’ve taught, read and enjoyed, or highly recommended and/or award-winning titles. Newbery winners are always a good choice! I will continue to add to this list, so check back often! If you have titles you’d like to suggest to me for adding to the list, please let me know!

Fiction – Classics:

  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe 
  • The Pearl by John Steinbeck
  • Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • The Complete Works of O. Henry (short stories) by O. Henry
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Mythology by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (short stories) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Little Women by Louisa Mae Alcott
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Fiction – Contemporary:

  • House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • Rebound by Kwame Alexander
  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  • Anything (many series to choose from) by Rick Riordan
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
  • Countdown by Deborah Wiles
  • The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  • Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner
  • Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner
  • Silver Jaguar Society mystery trilogy by Kate Messner
  • Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  • A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
  • Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  • Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass
  • Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Drama:

  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • Our Town by Thornton Wilder
  • Fences by August Wilson
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • The Monsters are Due on Maple Street by Rod Serling (screenplay)

Non-Fiction:

  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  • Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa’ud by Robert Lacey
  • Apollo 13 by James Lovell
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II by Daniel James Brown
  • Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong
  • Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Boys in the Boat: Young Readers Adaptation by Gregory Mone (or the adult version by Daniel James Brown)
  • All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team  by Christina Soontornvat
  • Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin (or sequel More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin)
  • A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
  • Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway