Book Review: Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Good Company
by
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I knew this book was going to be good before I even started it, and it wasn’t because I thought I’d relate to the characters’ professions or to the setting, but simply because I loved Sweeney’s characters in The Nest and was confident she would write another good story! The main characters in Good Company are two married couples who have been best friends since their early days. Three of the four are stage actors (one is a doctor) who move from New York to Los Angeles and undergo west coast career and life changes. I’m neither a New Yorker nor an Angelino and my last stage performance was in my school’s fifth-grade production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. The reason the book is good is because Sweeney draws you in with her characters, who are really just regular people who face typical life problems. The title, named after the actors’ New York theater company also looks at old friendships, family, love and marriage and forces the characters to question if they are indeed in good company.

The story begins in Los Angeles, when Flora Fletcher finds her husband’s lost wedding ring in the back of an old filing cabinet. Thirteen years earlier, Julian had told her the ring had slipped off his finger while swimming and, despite searches, they had declared the ring lost forever. So, what’s it doing in the cabinet?

Flora’s discovery puts a cloud over their daughter, Ruby’s high school graduation party that night and leads to an unraveling of her life and marriage as she knew it. How can this be? She and Julian are in a good place in their marriage and careers. She’s a voiceover actress for a popular animated show and Julian stars in a successful seventies’ series. Also at risk is Flora’s relationship with her best friend, Margot, now a regular on a popular medical drama.

This is a book about transitions and the stresses that pop up, a super-interesting topic to me. I love how the author writes about how big life changes force you to reassess.

While Los Angeles is their current home, New York City and Good Company’s upstate performance venue figure prominently. The author jumps back to New York, when Flora and Julian first meet, marry and have Ruby. I liked the realistic dynamics between Flora and Julian in during these times, what they disagreed about, how they soldiered on, despite not having regular work. And while readers know Flora and Margot, who are very different from each other, are best friends, I liked learning how they became that way and what Margot brought to the relationship. Readers also learn about Margot’s marriage to David and why he gave up his practice.

I could say a lot more about this book, but readers are better off enjoying it first-hand. Told from several points of view, readers get a look into the minds of Flora, Margot, Ruby and later, Julian. Sweeney tackles the universal tough questions, writes with humor, and gives us authentic and likable characters.

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Short story review: “The Oblong Box” by Edgar Allan Poe

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom: Short Story Reviews. And to celebrate Halloween, what’s better than a spooky story by Edgar Allan Poe?

“The Oblong Box”
by
Edgar Allan Poe

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As he boards a ship from South Carolina to New York, Cornelius Wyatt’s busybody friend is obsessed with what might be inside a mysterious oblong box that the artist Wyatt is transporting. He takes careful note of the box and tells the reader, “The box in question was, as I say, oblong. It was about six feet in length by two and a half in breadth.” Knowing Poe, we might have a pretty good idea what’s inside, but Wyatt’s friend guesses that the box contains “nothing in the world but a copy of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper.’” He congratulates himself on the deduction, telling us, “I chuckled excessively when I thought of my acumen.”

The friend is consumed with Wyatt’s traveling party, the artist, his new wife and his two sisters. Wyatt had spoken about his bride’s loveliness and grace, but the friend is shocked when he meets her. Her beauty and character are clearly below the standards he had expected. And Wyatt is acting strangely, like a man gone mad, laughing hysterically when his friend mentions the box. Now there are two mysteries. As they sail, the friend is determined to confirm what’s in the box and understand the story behind Wyatt and his new wife.

A hurricane threatens to wreck the ship and the crew and passengers must board a lifeboat. Wyatt, however, is beside himself and insists they return for the box. He shouts to the captain, “By the mother who bore you – for the love of Heaven – by your hope of salvation, I implore you to put back for the box!”

When characters reach this point in a suspenseful story, they act, or they don’t, and the finish is determined by this moment. Within minutes, Wyatt’s desperate decision seals his fate. A month later, the friend finally learns the mystery of the box. He admits to us his foolish mistake, but also confides he is haunted by a hysterical laugh forever ringing in his ears.

What a great story, and it gets better the more you think about it! I did not know about The Oblong Box until I read about it on Jeff’s blog, Stuff Jeff Reads. In his post, he talks about what the story means: “For me, this tale is an allegory of the return to the source, or the Godhead, which is symbolized by the sea.” Jeff goes on to praise Poe’s writing, “I really enjoyed this tale, both because of the symbolism contained within, but also because the writing is so exquisitely crafted.” Want more analysis? Click here to read Jeff’s full post on The Oblong Box.  Thanks, Jeff, for recommending this story!

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Book Review: Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Love Marriage
by
Monica Ali

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I could not stop reading this book in which two families struggle to understand themselves and their relationships with each other. Set in London, Yasmin Ghorami is a doctor-in-training and her fiancé, Joe Sangster, is a practicing obstetrician. The story begins as Yasmin and Joe bring their parents together for the first time. Yasmin worries about the cultural divide between her parents, Anisah and Shaokat, and Joe’s mother, Harriet, an upper class liberal and outspoken feminist and writer. And Joe can only hope that Harriet will behave around Yasmin’s Muslim parents. Their dinner together unfolds nicely, but soon Harriet has taken over the wedding preparations, with Anisah’s full and enthusiastic approval, and much to Yasmin’s shock at the idea of a now-large and complicated religious ceremony. Readers may think they are settling in for a bit of a romantic comedy, but will soon discover a host of serious and complicated problems. Ali’s characters must undergo important and often painful transformations before they can find happiness.

The first problem: Joe and Yasmin. Joe tells her he wants to settle down, but he has secrets and must work through complex issues about sex and his unusually close relationship with Harriet. Yasmin loves Joe, but is there enough passion? Her limited dating experience is of no help. I like the way the author shows how the couple’s genuine love and affection for each other makes this problem all-the-more painful.

The second problem: Shaokat’s stubborn pride. Yasmin’s father became a doctor against all odds, but at a cost. Now, above everything, he wants Yasmin and her brother, Arif to succeed and his intense expectations work against him. Although Yasmin is on her way, she questions whether she really wants to be a doctor. Arif, unemployed and angry, locks horns with Shaokat who berates him about his lack of motivation. I was incredibly drawn into these simmering conflicts between fathers and their adult children. There are some powerful scenes between Shaokat and his children.

The third problem: Anisah and Shaokat’s marriage. Anisah seems satisfied in her role as wife, mother and homemaker, but when she meets Harriet, she sees a wider world and a chance at happiness she never considered. She shocks her family when she grabs it and Yasmin will learn hard truths about her parents’ early days.

I think the best part of the book is how what seems to be a simple story develops and reveals complex problems within and between its characters. All of Ali’s characters undergo major, often painful transformations. I liked how the author made me feel like I was getting to know the characters, just as if I had met them for the first time, and how my early impressions of them changed over time. Likewise, was my understanding of their relationships with each other, something you don’t understand until you know a person longer. The author does an especially great job portraying the Ghorami family, Arif in particular, and the unique problems they face as Muslims in London. I thought Arif’s transformation was one of the most interesting storylines in the book.

Love Marriage portrays a specific culture and relates it to how everyone experiences similar personal and family conflicts. This is both an entertaining and serious book and I recommend it to all readers who like stories about family and marriage.

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Book Review: Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel

Stiltsville
by
Susanna Daniel

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I enjoyed Daniel’s Sea Creatures so much, I went back to read her debut novel which begins in the same community of stilt houses in the sand flats off Miami’s coast. This is also a story about marriage, family and relationships. It was interesting to read Stiltsville after Sea Creatures because I can see the where her unique writing style and character development begins.

When Frances Ellerby and Dennis DuVal meet at the DuVal family’s stilt house in 1969, they are twenty-somethings playing at being adults. Sparks fly and Daniel chronicles their relationship and marriage for thirty years. It’s not a perfect union, however, and they face many of the typical the pitfalls of married life.

I liked a lot of things about Stiltsville because I like reading about the ocean and boats. The author spent much of her childhood at her family’s stilt house and it’s obvious she knows what she’s talking about.  In addition, the stilt house community has a lot of draw because it is so different. Daniel does a great job describing the stilt houses and the dangers that exist, things people on land wouldn’t even think about. I think her other strength is in portraying the tensions and conflicts these characters face as they start their adult lives. I especially liked reading about Frances and Dennis’s early years because there’s a certain excitement in the time before things happen. That shows.

There’s a definite slow-down as time passes, however, and there are a few undeveloped story lines that would have been fun to know about. Frances’s friendship with Marse begins with a lot of tension and I think the early Marse is a great complex character. As the years go on, however, her personality mellows and becomes a little stereo-typed.  I also would have liked to have learned more about their daughter Margo, who struggles in her teens and during college, and about her marriage to Stuart, who has the potential to be one of the more interesting characters. 

Daniel also introduces several historical events into the plot which I think must be very hard to do.  There’s a shift in her writing style as this happens and I prefer when Frances returns to her thoughts about her own life. These events help bring authenticity to the Miami time and setting, however, and help to make the story whole. But the book is otherwise well-constructed and if you like to have the details of your story tied up in the end, you will enjoy this.

If you read both Stiltsville and Sea Creatures, you will be interested to see how Daniel experiments with themes and the ideas of marriage and family in Stiltsville. The mixed attractions of danger and the beauty of the stilt house settings are apparent in both. She also introduces the Stiltsville hermit in her first book – I enjoyed that!  And of course, the forces of nature play in both books.

This is an easy entertaining read with a relaxed and contented ending.  I’m looking forward to what comes next!

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What’s That Book? The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

 

art-of-fielding-628
Title
: The Art of Fielding

Author:  Chad Harbach

Genre: Fiction

Rating:  ***

What’s it about?  Westish College star shortstop Henry Skrimshander thought he was headed for Major League Baseball, but now his throw is off.  He must do something, but what?  As the season unfolds, Henry grapples with self-doubt and several other characters, including the university president, struggle with their own challenges.  Each character hopes that their beliefs in love, family and relationships are strong enough to carry them through.  A dramatic conclusion awaits at the season’s end.

How did you hear about it?  I was interested in the idea of an athlete facing a slump because it’s a common topic in college and professional sports commentary.

Closing comment:  I was disappointed with the book because I thought it was going to be about overcoming adversity, one of my favorite themes, but it is more about unlikely relationships and situations and unrealistic characters.

Contributor:  Ginette


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn Toibin

Brooklyn
by
Colm Tóibín

Rating:

Eilis Lacey’s older sister Rose understands the small-town limits of Enniscorthy, Ireland.  The years following World War II have been hard for the Lacey children and their widowed mother.  Brothers Jack, Pat and Martin have left for work in England, leaving Rose and Eilis to look after their mother.

At thirty, it may be too late for Rose, but Eilis has a chance for a better life in America.  And the decision is made when Rose arranges for an Irish priest from Brooklyn to sponsor her sister.  A few weeks later, a stunned and wide-eyed Eilis boards a ship for New York to begin her life.

Eilis settles into a Brooklyn walk-up with a group of women boarders, overseen by the opinionated Mrs. Kehoe and begins her job working the floor at Bartocci’s department store.  The strangeness of her new life overwhelms Eilis, but she keeps busy with work and accounting classes at Brooklyn College.  Slowly, her life changes and when she meets a man at an Irish church dance, Eilis begins to believe she can find happiness in New York.

When tragedy at home calls Eilis back to Ireland, she realizes that her ties to home are much stronger than she knew and she is tormented by indecision.  And her life in New York becomes more remote the longer she stays in Ireland.  Love, loyalty and family pull from two directions and it isn’t until the final pages of this lovely story where Eilis chooses.

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a classic tale about post-war immigration to America.  Readers feel the same mix of optimism and fear that runs through Eilis as she makes her way in an entirely new world.  Tóibín includes many details about 1950s New York, adding unique color and depth to an experience many have shared.  And the author’s strong female characters make this a story as much about gaining independence as it is about love and happiness.  What I enjoyed most was the emerging strength in Eilis as she adapts to change and then confronts the most important decision of her life.

At 262 pages, Brooklyn is fairly short and I would have liked to learn more about some of Tóibín’s lesser characters, including the Lacey brothers, Father Flood and Miss Fortini.  The author hints at interesting details about them and I think the story would have been even stronger if they had played greater roles.  Likewise, the author only touches on the conflicts between the different immigrant nationalities and other post-war tension.  Maybe he chose to only refer to these to add context and perhaps we will see these minor characters in another book.

Of course, if it’s a book that’s become a movie, I’m likely to watch the movie and make the comparison.  In this case, I was delighted.  While the movie, like all adaptations to film, omits layers of details too difficult to include, I thought it kept very close to the characters and story line.  You can learn more about the movie starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson here.


Follow along as I work my way through my 16 in 16 Challenge!

Book 1 – A Book You Can Finish in a Day:  The Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner
Book 2 – A Book in a Genre You Typically Don’t Read:  The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Book 3 – A Book with a Blue Cover:  The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Book 4 – A Book Translated to English:  I Refuse by Per Petterson
Book 5 – A Second Book in a Series:  Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy
Book 6 – A Book To Learn Something New: The Beginner’s Photography Guide by Chris Gatcum
Book 7 – A Book That Was Banned:  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Book 8 – A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Always Wanted to Visit:  Calmer Girls by Jennifer Kelland Perry
Book 9 – A Book with Non-human Characters:  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

olive kitt pic
Olive Kitteridge

by
Elizabeth Strout

Rating:

Olive Kitteridge is Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of thirteen integrated short stories about the people of Crosby, Maine, a seemingly simple town on the New England coast.  The people in Crosby trade news and gossip, but the real stories lie buried deep in the complicated and often painful family relationships that only surface behind their closed doors.

The stories span twenty-five years and focus on the town’s most complicated character, Olive Kitteridge, whose harsh and critical personality is both widely disliked and misunderstood.  Not surprisingly, Olive’s husband, Henry, the town’s pharmacist, and their son, Christopher bear the brunt of her brutal temperament.

Olive speaks her mind.  She apologizes to no one and alienates many.  But something happens over time:  the reader discovers that, while Olive has no patience for simps and ninnies, she cares very much about the emotionally vulnerable, and intervenes at crucial times, using a keen instinct.  If only she could treat Henry and Christopher this way.  Olive’s everyday interactions with her family are so unpleasant they cause deep and lasting damage.  As years pass and lives change, however, Strout offers a better look at Olive’s marriage.  The author shows glimpses of hope, renewed connections and a true understanding of a very complicated woman.

Olive Kitteridge is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Strout takes a simple Maine town and adds layers and layers of themes, including depression, love, family, marriage, infidelity, growing old and forgiveness.  Her characters show that goodness exists right next to all the flaws and faults of human interaction.  One of my favorite things about Olive is how she works out her frustrations in the garden.  The hearty yet fragile beauty of flowers is everywhere in these stories, an excellent metaphor.  In addition to flowers, Strout includes the subtle yet prominent influence of nature and the sea in her characters’ lives. Sub-themes of religion and politics add further understanding of her characters.

While all of the thirteen stories are terrific, my favorites are “Pharmacy” in which Strout shows Henry’s lovable and caring personality, “Incoming Tide”, a story of critical human connection and “River”, a hopeful look to the future.

Olive Kitteridge is the type of book you can read more than once.  This was my second read and I enjoyed as much as the first, picking up on wonderful details about the characters and town.

This book has made it to my All-Time Top Ten List!

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What’s on your reading wish list?

Image:  gcastd.org
Image: gcastd.org

Although I’m busy with my Summer Reading Challenge, here are a few books on my wish list:


The Nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

D’Aprix’s debut novel about four adult children’s dysfunctional family and their joint trust fund.


The Swans of Fifth Avenue

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Benjamin’s new novel about New York’s socialite Swans of the 1950s: Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill.  Everything changes when Truman Capote enters the scene.


The Widow

The Widow by Fiona Barton

Here’s another debut novel:  a story about being the perfect wife to a man accused of a heartless crime.


My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One of my favorite writers!  Mother and daughter come together after many years as they confront the tension in their imperfect family.


When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi, age thirty-six, was just completing his training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.  In his book he asks, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?”


Have you read any of these?  What’s on your list?

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Some thoughts and books for Mother’s Day

Mothers-Day-2016-Cards mothers-days.net
Image: mothers-days.net.jpg

As Mother’s Day approaches, I’m thinking about my mom and about being a mom.  We’ll be spending the day with my parents tomorrow, enjoying a nice brunch and honoring my mother.  I won’t have all my kids with me, but I’ll have the whole crew home next week.  So nice to have a full nest for the summer!

So in keeping the wonderful sentiment of honoring and celebrating motherhood, here are a few books that do just that!


Tommy’s Mommy’s Fish by Nancy Dingman Watson

Tommy's Mommy's Fish

If you don’t know this book, try to get your hands on a copy.  I’m told it’s out of print, but it’s such a wonderful story and a great one to read to your kids.


Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey

make way for ducklings

Mrs. Mallard causes quite a stir when she leads her eight ducklings through the streets of Boston, across town to meet Mr. Mallard on the pond in the Public Garden!  It’s a wonderful picture book for little children and for young elementary school kids


An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresinowski

An Invisible Thread

Here’s an incredible story about a woman who befriends a boy panhandling in New York, and begins a thirty-year friendship.  Proof that motherhood comes in many forms.


Text Me, Love Mom: Two Girls, Two Boys, One Empty Nest by Candace Allan

Text Me, Love Mom cover

You don’t stop being a mom when your kids leave the nest.  Candace Allan tells us how it feels when the flights begin.


Happy Mother’s Day!

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What’s up next? After You by Jojo Moyes

After You

If you read Me Before You, you are probably wondering how Lou Clark is doing on her own, now that Will Traynor is gone. I was, and I’m glad my book club friend chose After You for one of our upcoming discussions.

Me before you pic

If you haven’t read Me Before You yet, here’s a basic description without giving anything away:

Lou Clark, a working-class girl in a small town in England, has lost her job.  She has trouble finding another and reluctantly accepts an offer to be care-giver for a quadriplegic man, Will Traynor.  She’s kind of quirky.  He’s bitter and has a difficult personality.  It’s a love story, but there’s a whole lot more.

Me Before You is the kind of book you have to read yourself to know what it’s about.  To read a more detailed plot would spoil the experience.  There is happiness in this story.  There are many very funny parts.  But there are also many sad moments and many difficult and moral decisions.

After You tells Lou’s story once she’s on her own. I’ve already begun reading and will tell you that Jojo Moyes is an excellent writer. She is both funny and serious in just the right measure so that, when her characters move through the hard parts of life, you know they will be lifted with the proper amount of humor and affection.

Me Before You is the kind of book you power through because the subject matter demands it. After You is also a fast-moving story and I’m sure I will be finished soon.

If you are interested in the storyline, check out my blog posts on Me Before You. There is one with no spoilers and a second one which discusses Lou’s difficult moral decision.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – No spoilers in this review!

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – What would you do? – Warning: spoilers below

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