Every morning in my email I receive a message from The New York Public Library, introducing me to their Book of the Day. Last week, a book by Anna Quindlen popped up. I was thrilled, a new read from one of my favorite authors! I jumped onto my library’s website and confirmed that they had the book. Not only did they have the book, it was available. They have recently reopened with limited hours, so I quickly added a stop there to my to-do list. Arriving at the library and pulling the book from the shelf, I immediately realized Alternate Sides was not a new title and that I had read it when it was released back in 2018. I put it back and stood there, lovingly looking at the row of books by Ms. Quindlen. I was thrilled when I discovered a title I had not previously read, Still Life with Breadcrumbs. I quickly checked out the book and headed home to indulge in an hour (or two) of gratifying reading.
Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen
Settling in with my book was like sitting down with an old friend. I wanted to call Anna up and say, “Hello! I’ll be in the city next Thursday. Can we meet up at Café Luxembourg for a glass of wine?” That thought led me to remember a book I had read years ago when I was a member of a book group, The Book Babes, on ideas for your reading group. I was looking for ways to keep our troop engaging, beyond drinking wine. One thought was that since we all had our favorite authors maybe we should try contacting one just to see where it would go. The book’s advice on author meet-ups was – wanting to meet the author because you liked the book is like wanting to meet the cow because you liked the hamburger! While I understand the intent, I still want to meet Anna!
The heroine of Ms. Quindlen’s seventh novel is Rebecca Winters, a 60-year old photographer. Her early success has waned, she is helping support her aging parents, occasionally assisting her film maker son with an influx of cash and her supercilious husband has left her. “‘Peter is so European,’ women would occasionally say and later Rebecca wondered if that was their way of telling her that he sleeps around.” With Rebecca’s bank account quickly dwindling, she sublets her beloved Upper West Side apartment for an infusion of cash and rents a cottage in upstate New York sight unseen. The book is a somewhat predictable romance, feel good read, but I loved it. The passage where Jim makes Rebecca a grilled cheese sandwich was laughable. The (somewhat) quintessential New York City woman meets 900 calorie deliciousness. The book has been described as literary comfort food. It certainly was a comforting, satisfying read, but also inspiring. Yay for sixty-year old women who make their own way. I give it four grandmas out of five!
The Daughters of Erietown: A Novel by Connie Schultz
When I learned that Connie Schultz had a novel out, I knew I wanted to read it and I wanted to read it as soon as possible! Ms. Schultz has long been on my radar. My oldest son and his wife, Emmet and Emily, were both working at The Cleveland Plain Dealer along with Ms. Schultz when she received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. They both remember gathering with the entire newsroom, waiting for the official notification to arrive. Connie was standing with the managing editor and editor in chief, who was holding a bottle of sparkling wine (Cook’s to be exact), ready to pop the cork as soon as word arrived. Word came, they heard the “pop” of the bubbly and the newsroom erupted with applause and cheers. Savoring her moment, Connie raised a hand to acknowledge her colleagues. Emily shared, “I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who walked back to my desk (after grabbing my glass of Cook’s, of course) inspired to work harder and dream bigger. The award was obviously hers, but she made the entire newsroom feel like a part of the win. I kept my plastic champagne glass on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible.”
In her debut work of fiction, she tells the story of four generations of women in a hardscrabble Ohio town. Beginning in the 1940s, it tracks the rhythms of daily life in a blue-collar community. Ellie is being raised by her maternal grandparents. She has the best grades in her class and dreams of going to nursing school and marrying her high school sweetheart, Brick. Brick is a basketball star who is offered a college scholarship and a chance to escape his abusive father. Everything changes when Ellie learns she is pregnant, and the young lovers revise their plans and marry. This is the story of women, marriage, friends, mothers, grandparents, daughters, husbands, choices made and secrets kept. In other words, it is the story of life. In Ellie’s own words, “Everybody starts out as one kind of person and ends up being somebody else. Even if you don’t notice it, life is rearranging you.”
While I value Ms. Schultz’s journalistic endeavors (you can read her article Finally, a Convention for the Rest of America for Creators Syndicate here), I’m delighted she took the time to venture into fiction. I rate this book four grandmas out of five!
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
And now for something completely different. Mr. Smith is quite a fan of Trevor Noah and that led his thoughtful son to gift him with Trevor’s book, Born a Crime, for Fathers’ Day. Mr. Smith quickly devoured the book and passed it on to me. Oh my! It is the story of Trevor’s childhood and growing up in his native South Africa during apartheid. Trevor was born to a white father and black mother in 1984. At that time in South Africa this was a crime punishable by five years in prison. His parents tried to conduct their relationship in secret, but his mother was frequently jailed for short periods of time and Treavor would often be hidden from authorities.
Each chapter is prefaced with commentary helping me understand the times, followed by tales of his early experiences as a mischievous child who grew into a restless young man. His stories weave together to provide a sometimes funny, sometimes moving picture of a boy making his way through a crazy world in a dangerous time. Although the descriptions of life under South African apartheid were revelatory, I believe this book is primarily a love letter to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo. Ms. Nombuyiselo grew up in a hut with 14 other occupants yet created a life where she could eventually provide a house for Trevor. She was stubborn, fearless and deeply religious. And she loved Trevor unconditionally and unconventionally. Part of her deep love manifested in severe discipline. When Trevor was arrested for stealing a car, his first thoughts were of how much trouble he would be in with his mother. But it was his mother who paid his bail and paid for his lawyer.
“…Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”
Considering the state of our nation today, I would recommend this book to everyone. Not preachy, but honest and gritty. And with a nod to Trevor’s extraordinary mother, I’m giving it the much coveted five grandmas!
The Dutch House by Ann Pachett
A couple weeks ago I received a text from my friend LouAnne, inquiring if I had any books to suggest for The Book Babes. They were making up their reading list for the year and she needed to come up with her selection. I suggested Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver and Connie Schultz’s book reviewed above. When I asked if she had any recommendations for me, she shared she was reading The Dutch House which had been suggested to her by a literary friend and I decided to give it a try.
Ann Pachett’s eighth novel is the story of a brother and sister, Danny and Maeve. It spans five decades and details their obsessive connection with the iconic house they lived in as young children. Their father, Cyril, bought The Dutch House, a 1922 mansion outside of Philadelphia, fully furnished in an estate sale as a surprise for his wife, Elna. She hated the house, both aesthetically and ethically. When Maeve is ten and Danny is three, Elna leaves both the house and her family. Cyril is obsessed with work and leaves the lion share of care of his motherless children to the kind-hearted cook and housekeeper. The fractured fairy tale feeling continues with the entrance of the evil stepmother who systematically pushes Danny and Maeve out. The years pass. When Danny and Maeve are both in town, they spend hours sitting in Maeve’s car outside The Dutch House, going over and over the past. Danny eventually asks, “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”
Ann Pachett is another favorite author of mine. I read Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars years ago and I found The Dutch House to be just as engrossing and satisfying. Again, I give it four grandmas out of five.
I purposely didn’t provide a complete plot summary of the books, I simply attempted to whet your appetite. When I read a book, I don’t want to start out knowing everything that is going to happen. I want to be brought along with the author’s twists and turns. In these crazy times when we can’t even cross the Canadian border, we can spend hours traveling around the world through fascinating books. Happy reading…
C’est la vie.