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.

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

Vanessa and Her Sister

9780804176378_p0_v3_s260x420-1If you ever wondered just how miserable Virginia Woolf had to be to drown herself in  the River Ouse by walking into the water after filling her overcoat pockets with stones, Priya Parmar reveals the quirky personality behind the disturbed genius as she examines the lives of sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Vanessa and Her Sister The timeline covers their young adult lives at Bloomsbury – before either had achieved fame through literature or art, and ends as Virginia Stephen marries Leonard Woolf.

NPR neatly summarizes the book:

“In the winter of 1905, in the London neighborhood of Bloomsbury, a group of friends began meeting for drinks and conversation that lasted late into the night. The friends – writers like Lytton Strachey, artists like Roger Fry and thinkers like economist John Maynard Keynes — continued to meet almost weekly for many years. Eventually, they came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group.

In the beginning, their clubhouse was the home of the Stephen siblings — two brothers and two sisters. Today, the women are better remembered than their brothers: They were the painter Vanessa Bell and the writer Virginia Woolf.

Priya Parmar has written a novel about the group, and especially about the Stephen women. It’s called Vanessa and Her Sister and it’s written in the form of Bell’s journal. Parmar tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer that she chose to put Bell at the center of her novel because, compared to her sister, her voice has been largely unheard.”

 

The sisters live with their brothers after the death of their parents, and through the weekly salon, the reader meets their friends, future husbands and a circle of recognizable literary luminaries – E.M. Forster, Rupert Brooke, Walter Lamb, and others.  Famous artists – Monet, Manet, Picasso, and others float through the periphery of the story, as Vanessa Stephen, an artist in her own right, marries Clive Bell, the art critic and author, who organized the landmark second Post-Impressionist exhibition that was held in London in 1912. Through a series of letters, and diary notes, Parma weaves a tale of sisterly love and sibling rivalry, telling the background story of the famous sisters and creating a fictional conversation based on historical fact.

If you are a fan of embellished historical fiction in the tone of “The Girl with a Pearl Earring,” you might enjoy the book, but beware – Parmar’s unique writing style might be a distraction.  Not quite an epistolary, the story uses Vanessa’s diary posts (Vanessa never actually kept a diary), letters between the authors and friends, as well as letters between Vanessa and her sister Virginia.  At times, the jumps from intimate thoughts from the journal to letters from assorted characters can be disarming.  You will need to concentrate on who is talking.

Although I have read Woolf’s writing and knew of her background, Parmar’s creation through the eyes of Woolf’s sister was enlightening.  Despite Virginia’s overbearing proclamations of the value of writing over art, Vanessa rallied on with her painting and eventually became renowned in the art world.  Although some of her paintings were destroyed in a fire, many remain on display.  Her son, Julian Bell, has carried on the tradition of writing and painting.  Parmar touches on the birth of Julian and the sham of Vanessa’s marriage, but her affair with Roger Fry and his influence on her work will have to wait for another novel.

Leonard Woolf appears as Virginia’s suitor through letters to a mutual acquaintance, Lytton Strachey. Their married life together, his subsequent influence and care of her delicate nature, as well as their founding of the Hogarth Press – which published most of Virginia’s novels – is well documented in Victoria Glendenning’s 2006 biography – Leonard Woolf – a book I now have on my list to read.  Parmar only briefly mentions Leonard, and left me wanting more.  As Virginia’s erratic behavior leads to her brief institutionalization, I wondered how he could continue to pursue her…but there is more to that story.

The sibling rivalry and forbearance of Vanessa toward her talented sister form the crux of this novel, and Parmar does highlight the “unheard” sister by speaking through the voice of Vanessa Stephen Bell.  By using primary sources and then fictionalizing Vanessa’s life, Parmar may have filled the gap for more information with a psuedo biography on the Vanessa with the famous sister.

 

 

 

 

 

Sisterland

9781410460189_p0_v1_s260x420If you knew an earthquake was coming to your neighborhood, would you leave town? Curtis Sittenfeld uses this premise in Sisterland while addressing how siblings are never alike – except when they are.  Adding to the drama, the sisters in the book – Violet and Daisy – are twins with psychic powers or maybe just a sharper sense of intuition.

The story moves back and forth from the girls’ childhood in the seventies of St. Louis, Missouri to present day, with Violet’s fifteen minutes of fame, including an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, when she predicts an earthquake on a specific date in the midwest town.  Although both girls share more than a sisterly connection, branding their room “sisterland” as well as their unusual gift for understanding and knowing the others’ thoughts as a shared sister land, only Violet progresses to adulthood as a paid medium.  Daisy, now Kate as an adult, marries a geophysicist, has two children, and burns any possibility of lingering extraordinary “senses” in a silver bowl after her daughter is born.  Although the plot line is melodramatic and, at times, more like a soap opera, Sittenfeld downplays the psychic talent and concentrates on the descriptions of daily life for the sisters.  Kate, the responsible twin, counters Violet’s behavior as the free spirit.  Yet, they understand each other, and share a unique communication that is realistic and engaging.

The sisters’ connections with family and friends add to the drama.  Courtney, the slim, intelligent seismologist and colleague of Kate’s husband, provides a counterpoint for the sisters’ less prestigious career choices. Courtney’s stay-at-home husband creates a confidante for Kate.  Jeremy, the handsome university professor husband, manages his life with Kate and his strange sister-in-law with patience and detached realism, until the possibility of the earthquake threatens to undermine his attendance at an out-of-town conference.  His decision to leave, despite his sister-in-law’s warning and his wife’s pleading, leads to a figurative earthquake at home.

Knowing whether or not the real earthquake actually happens would spoil the anticipation that keeps the narrative moving – and kept me reading.  More importantly, the drama that unfolds shakes the story and leaves behind extraordinary aftershocks.  The book can be long-winded at times, but an easy, entertaining read.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

Men aren’t supposed to have a mid-life crisis at 78, but Joseph does, as Cathleen Schine begins The Three Weissmanns of Westport.    His “irreconcilable differences” are predictable – his assistant, Felicity, younger and hungry for the good life.   So Joseph’s long-serving wife, Betty, is forced to leave posh Central Park West to live off the goodwill of Cousin Lou in a dilapidated Westport cottage.

Schine writes in a Bridget Jones style, without the diary, or going back a little further – Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  The story has humorous and  wise moments: “…Drama is draining…” And Betty could be Betty White – sarcastic and funny, biting yet sympathetic.   She emerges from the stereotypical caricature of divorce victim to someone you might know.

Somehow the three Weissmanns manage to support each other.    The two adult daughters leave Manhattan to move in with their mother in a show of  support: sensible Annie – comfort to everyone, manager of everything; and Miranda, emotional seeker of  the life, truth, and happiness that have eluded her for over 40 years.

Through the foibles and adventures, the plot turns repeatedly.   But the ones who are meant to be together in the end, manage to find each other.   Maybe as a note of caution to old lovers who take each other for granted,  Schine ends with a bittersweet twist for Betty and Joseph.

The women are contemporary and likeable; the language is clever with poignant moments.  Have a cup of tea with some cake and enjoy.