Category Archives: book review

Saints for All Occasions

9780307959577_p0_v6_s192x300  J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions features two Irish sisters immigrated from Ireland.  One joins a cloistered convent; the other marries and raises the nun’s out-of-wedlock son.  Although their lives seem predictable, Sullivan uses their strict upbringing and their personal struggles to create a family saga across generations.

The story begins with the death of Patrick, eldest son, but his place within the family is quickly absorbed into the estranged relationship of the two sisters. As the story moves between the present and the past, Sullivan follows the sisters as they travel by ship to their new world, and teases the reader with their future lives.  Despite the long descriptions and the choppy dialogue, I kept reading to find out how their lives developed.  How did Theresa become a nun?  How did she get to Vermont? How did Nora have so many children when she had not consummated her marriage after two years?  Sullivan posing possibilities by her glimpses into their future, constantly opening new doors for her characters.

The title refers to a collection of holy cards Nora has kept in a box.  I remember my grandmother’s – bespoke cards for specific requests with the saint’s picture on one side and the prayer of entreaty on the other.  Some have entered popular culture – pray to St. Jude for the impossible or St. Anthony for lost items, but St. Monica as the patron saint for mothers of difficult children was new to me. The cards also include commemorations of the dead, usually distributed at a funeral. I have a stack of those bequeathed to me – some of relatives I barely remember.

For those of us who grew up in the Catholic religion of old and watched as it morphed into modernity, then was crippled by the exposure of priests’ crimes, Sullivan’s references will make a connection.  As the book ended, I wanted more  and realized I had become immersed in the characters’ lives.

Related Review: Maine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

9780735220683_p0_v1_s192x300 Eleanor Oliphant is a survivor with a secret past and her lonely life is difficult until an act of kindness changes everything.  In her debut novel Gail Honeyman creates a thirty year old woman both pitied and ridiculed for her awkward social interactions as an adult.

Despite her attempts to fit in, she remains an outsider – that slightly odd person who rarely says a word, works all week, and sadly returns to a bare apartment after a hard day’s work at the office, spending her lonely weekends drinking vodka and eating pizza, speaking to noone until Monday morning.  Her isolation has a reason but its effect has stolen her ability  to understand what is appropriate behaviour in the world.

When she stops to help an older man who trips and drops his groceries, she meets Raymond, a fellow worker.  The follow-up visits to the hospital begin a circle of friendship with the older man, his family, and especially Raymond, but Honeyman cleverly inserts an undercurrent of yearning for Eleanor – a plan to marry a rock star.

As Eleanor prepares to meet the pop musician, changing her hairstyle and her clothes, she is also inadvertently building a relationship with Raymond.  Slowly, she ventures out to socialize in ways she has never dared before, and her life expands to new experiences.  Behind all this strange reawakening, Eleanor’s past and her debilitating conversations with her mother, who calls her once a week, intrude on her present.  Eventually, Eleanor has a nervous breakdown but with the support of her boss and Raymond, and a therapist, she manages to finally break away from the horrors of her past and live a full life.

Although Eleanor’s past is the secret finally revealed at the end of the story, her facial scars and her emotional fragility offer hints at the horrors she has faced as a child.  Growing up in foster care after escaping a deathly fire, Eleanor has blocked all memory of her childhood.  Carefully written to include compassion for Eleanor’s difficulty coping with adult life, the story is also full of humor as Eleanor tries to navigate the  world of office politics and a possible love affair – her comments and observations on everyday minutia are hilarious.

Honeyman’s profile of a young woman who not only survives a horrible past but also manages to finally become her own person, is a treat to read.  The book has been optioned for a movie.  Read it or listen to it first and enjoy its charm.

A Dissection of Evening

9780375700262_p0_v2_s192x300   Discussing Susan Minot’s novel Evening did not change my view.  Minot’s language is beautiful and her stream of consciousness narrative promotes attention to the underlying current of a dying memory, however faulty, but her plot has the unrealistic dramatic tone better suited to the movie it later became.

Ann is dying at sixty-five from cancer, and as she slowly falls through to the last stages, with her daughters and son at her bedside, and the trusty nurse who administers regular doses of pain killers, she remembers a weekend when she was twenty-five.  As Ann relives the steamy love affair with Harris, a Don Juan secretly engaged to his pregnant fiancee, Ann mourns the loss of her one true love.   Minot would have the reader engage in the fantasy that the brief affair with a near stranger matters more than anything else that has happened in her life since then.  All of the realistic complications of her life as she goes on to marry (three times) and have children, seem to disappear in the morass of passion.  D.H. Lawrence would be proud of Minot’s evocative descriptions, but other authors (George Eliot, Edith Wharton) might question the power of a youthful passion to separate feeling over reason over a lifetime.

As Ann’s past slowly is revealed, her children and others around her speak of her as they know her now.  Minot has her main character slip away in the end, secure in her secrets.  No one knows her as well as she knows herself.

Have you read the book or seen the movie?

City of Friends by Joanna Trollope

9781509823444_p0_v1_s192x300  Joanna Trollope first came to my attention seventeen years ago around the office water cooler.  Two high-ranking professional women were extolling Trollope’s knack for using domestic issues to highlight how to deal with people – chick lit for career minded intellectuals.  Now I get it; I finally got around to reading one of her books, her latest – City of Friends – Trollope’s twentieth novel.

The book revolves around four women – all friends since college days as economics majors, and all successful in their careers twenty years later, and, most importantly, all still in touch with one another.  If you have been fortunate to sustain a friendship over twenty years, you will understand the inordinate pleasure of having someone know your history but you will also know the conscious effort needed to stay connected through inevitable changes in lives.  Imagine multiplying all this by four.  Communication across two women is manageable, with three it gets a little harder, with four the possibilities for misunderstandings and crossed wires are inevitable.  Trollope juggles across the lives of these four friends, with the emphasis on the cost of a successful career for women in both friendship and family.

When Stacey, a private equity executive loses her job when she asks for more flexible hours to care for her mother who has dementia, the crisis triggers a string of confrontations with her friends: banker Gaby, academic Beth, and consultant Melissa, who have their own problems as they juggle family commitments and high-pressure careers. Trollope follows Melissa’s anxiety over her son reconnecting with his father (whom she never married), Beth’s betrayal by her lover Claire, and Gaby’s struggle with her stay-at-home husband.  While the plot sounds reminiscent of a Maeve Binchy drama, Trollope’s storytelling uses empathy and energy to  realistically reveal the serious underlying difficulties for women trying to combine family and career.  Of course, not all is heavy drama – who knew the most important tips for giving a good speech were to wear expensive shoes and not touch your hair.

Trollope’s story in City of Friends was a light pleasure – easy to read but with some substance.  In an interview Trollope stated:

“I really believe we learn more about the human condition from fiction than we do from anything else…I think novels help people survive…”

I’m glad I finally read one of Trollope’s books.  I will look for more.

How Do You Find Your Next Book?

images  How do you find a book to read?  Do you browse through bookstores?  scroll the web for new publications?  read reviews?  follow book blogs?  talk to your friends?  wait for a favorite author to write another?  hope for inspiration?

Sites recommending books can be helpful.  I tried a few:

The New York Times Book Review has a new advice column (similar to Dear Abby) with tongue-in-cheek samples of letters from bereft readers needing a good book, but also listing some titles worth checking, and an email address for personal inquiries. The latest column of Dear Match Book offered summer reading and I found one I want to read, Martha Cooley’s The Archivist, and a reminder of an old favorite – Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members.

What Should I Read Next  asks you to type the title of a your favorite book to find others like it with short plot summaries.  When I typed in Carol Goodman (The Lake of Dead Languages), I found a list of many books I had read, but one I had not: John Harwood’s The Ghost Writer.   Typing in Kent Haruf gave me books by Ruth Ozeki and Jhumpa Lahiri.  I spent some time typing in authors and books just to see what would come up.

A fellow reader alerted me to Recommend Me A Book.  The site taps into the tendency some of us have to pick a book based on its cover, or reading the first page to see if it grabs you.  On this site you can see a page of book covers, or you can read the first page of a book before knowing the title.  Surprisingly, you may not always identify a book you’ve already read before the title is revealed.  I flipped through a number of first pages and never recognized the books I had read – State of Wonder, The Heart of Darkness, The Secret History – but Harry Potter was easy to spot.

In Just the Right Book you can take a quiz – as many times as you like – and get recommendations.  I found a few new books I had not read: Michael Chabon’s Moonglow and a good beach read The Antiques by Kris D’Agostino.   And it’s fun to keep retaking the quiz.

ReviewDear Committee Members