The Cactus

In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.

When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes.  Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy.  At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father.  The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.

Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic.  In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending.  You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

If you are not hungry for pie and thirsty for beer as you read J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota, you are a better person than I am.  After reading about Edith’s award winning pies, I had to take a break to buy and eat some pie.  The craving for ale, lager. or stout was easy to overcome since the only beer I really like is Guinness and only if I am drinking it in Ireland – something about the water, I think, makes it taste so good there I could have it for breakfast.  Luckily, I don’t get to Ireland often.

Expecting a cozy tale of lovable elderly ladies around the quilting circle, I was pleasantly surprised by Stradal’s complicated family saga and learned more about the making of beer than I can ever use – unless I too get the opportunity to make a chocolate beer in my old age.

Two sisters, Edith, the pie maker, and Helen, the chemist and brewmeister, part ways when their father dies and leaves the farm to Helen.  Without sharing the profits, Helen sells the farm and uses the money to start a brewery.  Throughout the story, Helen is the selfish, smart, money-hungry sister pitted against sweet, calm, pie-making Edith.   Forsaking her ideal of the perfect beer, Helen and her husband make Blotz, a cheap beer appealing to the masses and make a fortune.  Helen, however, does not share her good fortune with her sister.

Left penniless after her husband’s death, Edith works baking pies in a nursing home and as a janitor at a fast food restaurant, raising her teenage granddaughter, Diane, after the fatal crash of Edith’s daughter.  Edith is the good sister, unrewarded with money for all her hard work, but, of course, loved by all.

Despite the stereotypes, the main characters are convincing, but as the tale evolves into desparate times for Edith, a newfound career in brewing for Diane with Edith and her senior friends working at the brewery, and the  evolution of craft beer destroying Helen’s empire, the ending is almost predictable.

I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota in a day, enjoying the possibility of ladies over sixty having a new career in an unlikely business.  Looking for more information on craft beer, I found Williams Sonoma sells a Craft Beer Kit – seems anyone can try making beer.

Early Spring Fever

Inspired by Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method, I’ve been folding shirts and finding joy in mindless tasks.  The book –  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – caused a decluttering craze when it was first published, but I avoided it.  When short clips appeared on You Tube and Netflix, however, I succumbed and found solace in folding pants and shirts.

When Kondo proclaimed books were not to be kept  but donated or – horrors – thrown away, I immersed myself in my overflowing bookshelves to read a few waiting to be read; I made a dent in the stack – soon to be filled with other books.  None warranted a review, but you might find some distraction in them:

81oX4ShsrZL._AC_UL436_That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron

A rambling historical fiction with Winston’s mother, Jennie, as the heroine.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

When the New York Times featured the 25th Anniversary edition, I found a copy – full of lists and advice.  My “creative soul” couldn’t finish it.

41yKgsnf1fL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

For dog lover’s everywhere, this touching first person account of a woman who almost loses her rent controlled New York City apartment when she adopts the Great Dane of a friend who died, has the dog as the hero who saves her life – of course.

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

One of my book clubs is about to discuss this one – a timely and harrowing story of a woman who was abused in her youth by a politician now climbing the ladder of power and success.  Set in an unnamed South American island nation, the story is topical and disturbing.

MCD-Dont-Throw-AwayAnd now, my library wait list finally delivered a book by one my  favorite authors  – Eleanor Lipman’s Good Riddance.  With a nod to Marie Kondo, Lipman acknowledges  the fear may of us have after shredding and throwing items away – what if you disposed of something you should have kept?  I’ve stopped tidying and starting reading.

 

Quotes for Nasty Women and Catholic School Daze

th  Growing up in Catholic school with nuns as the arbiters of comportment left little room for deviant behavior that would go unpunished, unless you didn’t get caught.  The nuns discouraged “nasty” girls who where outspoken, yet ironically cited historical women who had achieved some fame as role models – Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others.  Linda Picone notes the modern version of compelling women in her collection referencing lines by women who dared to speak their minds in Quotes for Nasty Women.  

This short book has over three hundred pages of one liners from women novelists, politicians, actors, entrepreneurs, and other women of influence.  Just for fun, I picked out six quotes by an assortment of famous “nasty women”  who are among my favorites – both the women and the quotes.  Can you guess who said which?

The women who said the lines below are:    irreverent  New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, my favorite chef Julia Child, ubiquitous poet Emily Dickinson, the long-lasting influential Queen Victoria, American singer Joan Baez, and the witty American writer Dorothy Parker.  The answers are at the bottom of the post.

Quotes:

  1. “The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”
  2. ” I dwell in possibility.”
  3. “I’ve never had a humble opinion.  If you’ve got an opinion, why be humble about it?”
  4. “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
  5. “Drama is very important in life: You have to come in with a bang.  You never want to go out with a whimper.”
  6. “The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.”

Perhaps the strongest influences in my life were the nuns, and Thea Marshall brought back that memory in her short story “Catholic School Daze” in the book Tuesdays at Two, a compilation of short writings by a local writer’s group.  Little girls, thankfully, often grow up to be “nasty women.”

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Answers to the list of quotes:

  1. Queen Victoria
  2. Emily Dickinson
  3. Joan Baez
  4. Dorothy Parker
  5. Julia Child
  6. Maureen Dowd

 

 

Romance on Valentine’s Day – One Day in December

412UfeEvhlL   Love at first sight? Only one true love? Josie Silver’s One Day in December combines the what if scenarios of Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie Sideways with a big dose of John Cusack’s search for his one true love in Serendipity. As one of Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks and a Book of the Month, the story carries a little more weight than the typical romance novel, while staying true to form. If you are looking for love this Valentine’s Day, this story will satisfy,  and if you have nowhere to go, or noone to be with, you could do no worse than to pour yourself a glass of wine and settle in to read it in one sitting.

When twenty-two year old Laurie spies a handsome guy reading a book at a bus stop, she is smitten.  He sees her looking at him from the bus and vainly tries to board, but the bus pulls away.  Anchored by ten years of Christmas celebrations, One Day in December is a charming story for the hopeless romantic who likes happy endings.   

shopping  For more easy distraction and romance, I am currently listening to Sophie Kinsella’s I Owe You One.  The posh English accent of the reader and the funny shenanigans of the heroine are putting me in a good mood.

If you are a fast reader, and need more to fill your day, these have potential (I haven’t read them yet – have you?)

The Winters by Lisa Gabriel is an updated version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca

Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy explores Marilla’s young life before Anne came to live at Green Gables.

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