Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

 

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My Review:

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a beautifully written, character driven, heartfelt novel that takes place in the steamy Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The story is about a young black girl, Leonie who has two children, Jojo who is thirteen and Kayla who is a toddler.  The children’s father, Michael, is white, and in prison.  Michael’s family is hopelessly racist and rejects Leonie and the children, so they live with Leonie’s parents.  Leonie is a drug addict and she is rarely around so Mam and Pop have stepped in to raise the kids.  Mam is dying of cancer and a broken heart due to her son’s death and spends all of her time in bed, and Pop is quiet, strong and teaches Jojo what he can around the farm.  Jojo is brave; he takes care of his little sister Kayla with love and care, despite his mother’s neglect as a parental role model.  When Michael is released from prison, Leonie takes her reluctant children away from their grandparents, on a road trip with her friend, Misty, to pick up drugs and then the children’s father.

Throughout the novel, we learn about Pop’s time spent in the penitentiary, and the horrific details that pepper his past.  We see how his daughter, Leonie, is selfish, neglectful, bitter and struggles with addiction.  We witness Jojo being able to communicate with the dead.  These rich characters evoke so much emotion, hope and despair, and I enjoyed my increased understanding of them as they became whole through Ward’s prose.

Jesmyn Ward shows us that the course of our life is not just based on our current existence, relationships, choices and our future potential but also includes our past and how its impact weighs on us.  In addition to these living characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing, there is the ghost of Leonie’s dead brother, Given, who she sees when she is on drugs, and Richie, the young boy Pop failed to save when he was in jail as a younger man, who Jojo sees and helps as he searches for answers about his own death.

I really did love this story of love, protection, race and family in the face of poverty down south.  The lines between past and present, death and the living and hate and love are fine and the characters often hover between them.  Jesmyn Ward does an artful job putting a spotlight on the injustices life may bring and I highly recommend this book!

As Seen on Goodreads:

Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 2017

A searing and profound Southern odyssey.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

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About the Author: 

Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and was a recipient of a Stegner Fellowship, a John and Renee Grisham Writers Residency, and the Strauss Living Prize. She is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University and author of the novels Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award. She is also the author of the memoir, Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Media for a Just Society Award. She lives in Mississippi.
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Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

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My Review:

 

If you missed the release of Lilac Girls, now is the time to buy the paperback.  It is historical fiction based on true and harrowing events during World War II.  For me, the Holocaust has always been mostly about how the Jews were prosecuted; a devastating time in our history across the world.  But of course the Jewish people were not the only ones who were affected.  Author Martha Hall Kelly gets up close and personal with Kasia, a young Polish girl with Jewish ancestry who is completing secret missions for the underground anti-war efforts and is captured by the Gestapo with her sister and her mother… Herta, an out of work, German doctor who is offered a job at the women’s re-education camp and forced to execute by lethal injections… and Caroline, a New York francophile who sent supplies to the orphanages in France and who becomes a hero and savior to many.

Each chapter is about one of the three women; we learn about their everyday lives and challenges, love, relationships, hope and dreams as they navigate life during the war.  The most inspiring character for me is the reality based Caroline Ferriday.  She works for the French consulate, sending money and supplies to those in France during the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Ultimately she learns of the Rabbits, this courageous group of young women being held at the concentration camp who were victims of a tragic medical experiment…horrible surgeries performed on them unnecessarily, their legs mangled and infected on purpose by the camp doctors to see what medicines worked, how much pain could be tolerated and which infections could be treated.  Many women died of this horrendous torture, but approximately 75 strong willed victims survived.  After Hitler was defeated, Caroline sought them out and brought all of these women to NYC for medical treatment and a tour of the United States.

If you have the chance to see author Martha Hall Kelly speak, do it!  You will hear about her research process for this book and how she travelled to Poland and had the privilege of meeting and interviewing several of the surviving Rabbits.  She has also spent countless hours at Caroline Ferriday’s summer house in Connecticut where the women stayed when they came overseas.  Her information gathering and writing process along with her book, Lilac Girls, are fascinating, and lucky for us, a prequel is in the making!  My book group and I were thrilled to spend a little time with Martha, hearing the back story and asking some questions.  Lilac Girls is a book not to be missed!

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As seen on Goodreads:

Inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this debut novel reveals a story of love, redemption, and secrets that were hidden for decades.
 
New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.

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About the Author:

Martha grew up in Massachusetts and now splits her time between Connecticut, New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. She worked as an advertising copywriter for many years and raised three splendid children, while researching and writing Lilac Girls, her first novel. She is now hard at work on the prequel, thrilled she doesn’t have to say good-bye to Caroline and Eliza. You’ll find more info about the incredible, true story behind Lilac Girls at her website: http://www.marthahallkelly.com and lots of great pics on her ever-changing Pinterest pages.

The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

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My Review:

I really enjoyed this short but dense book, The Red-Haired Woman written by Turkish Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk.  In the 1980s, a teenage, fatherless boy is an apprentice to Master Mahmut, a well digger.  They dig for water in the hot sun, and tell stories to pass the time.  They develop a tight relationship and grow to rely on each other as co-workers and as father and son.  One evening the boy observes a beautiful red haired woman twice his age and daydreams about her to get through the difficult days of work.  She is an actress in a traveling theater production and he becomes overwhelmed with desire to see her in the play and meet her.  Then there is an accident and we don’t know what happens to Mahmut.  The boy leaves town and we are not sure who the red-haired woman really is.  The characters connections to one another and the mysteries make this novel a fantastic page turner.

Through stories told to the boy by Master Mahmut, ideas about fathers and sons are explored with references to Oedipus Rex, where a son kills his father and has children with his mother, and Rostam and Sohrab, where the father kills his son. I had to do some googling to fully understand the references, but I like to learn something when I read and this story was captivating.  Love, loss and relationships are touched upon in The Red-Haired Woman, giving the reader a lot to think about, and so well written with a few shockers and surprises.  I loved how myths and real life paralleled each other and I highly recommend this book!

 

As seen on Goodreads:

On the outskirts of a town thirty miles from Istanbul, a master well-digger and his young apprentice are hired to find water on a barren plain. As they struggle in the summer heat, excavating without luck metre by metre, the two will develop a filial bond neither has known before–not the poor middle-aged bachelor nor the middle-class boy whose father disappeared after being arrested for politically subversive activities. The pair will come to depend on each other, and exchange stories reflecting disparate views of the world. But in the nearby town, where they buy provisions and take their evening break, the boy will find an irresistible diversion. The Red-Haired Woman, an alluring member of a travelling theatre company, catches his eye and seems as fascinated by him as he is by her. The young man’s wildest dream will be realized, but, when in his distraction a horrible accident befalls the well-digger, the boy will flee, returning to Istanbul. Only years later will he discover whether he was in fact responsible for his master’s death and who the red-headed enchantress was.
A beguiling mystery tale of family and romance, of east and west, tradition and modernity, by one of the great storytellers of our time.

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About the Author:

Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952 and grew up in a large family similar to those which he describes in his novels Cevdet Bey and His Sons and The Black Book, in the wealthy westernised district of Nisantasi. As he writes in his autobiographical book Istanbul, from his childhood until the age of 22 he devoted himself largely to painting and dreamed of becoming an artist. After graduating from the secular American Robert College in Istanbul, he studied architecture at Istanbul Technical University for three years, but abandoned the course when he gave up his ambition to become an architect and artist. He went on to graduate in journalism from Istanbul University, but never worked as a journalist. At the age of 23 Pamuk decided to become a novelist, and giving up everything else retreated into his flat and began to write.

Orhan Pamuk’s books have been translated into 63 languages, including Georgian, Malayan, Czech, Danish, Japanese, Catalan, as well as English, German and French. Pamuk has been awarded The Peace Prize, considered the most prestigious award in Germany in the field of culture, in 2005. In the same year, Snow received the Le Prix Médicis étranger, the award for the best foreign novel in France. Again in 2005, Pamuk was honoured with the Richarda Huck Prize, awarded every three years since 1978 to personalities who “think independently and act bravely.” In the same year, he was named among world’s 100 intellectuals by Prospect magazine. In 2006, TIME magazine chose him as one of the 100 most influential persons of the world. In September 2006, he won the Le Prix Méditerranée étranger for his novel Snow. Pamuk is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences, and holds an honorary doctorate from Tilburg University. Pamuk gives lectures once a year at Columbia University. He received the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the second youngest person to receive the award in its history. In 2014, Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence received the European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) given by European Museum Forum in Tallinn, Estonia. In the same year Pamuk also received Helena Vaz Da Silva European Award, an award which “acknowledges exceptional contributions to the communication on cultural heritage and European ideals”. In 2015, he received two significant prizes in Turkey for his ninght novel, A Strangeness in My Mind: Aydın Doğan Foundation Award and Erdal Öz Literary Prize. In 2016 Orhan Pamuk receives The Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award (from the Museum and Estate of Leo Tolstoy) for “Foreign Literature” category with his novel A Strangeness in my Mind.

Orhan Pamuk’s tenth novel, The Red-Haired Woman  (2016) is the story of a well-digger and his apprentice looking for water on barren land. It is also a novel of ideas in the tradition of the French conte philosophique.

Apart from three years in New York, Orhan Pamuk has spent all his life in the same streets and district of Istanbul, and he now lives in the building where he was raised. Pamuk has been writing novels for 40 years and never done any other job except writing.

The Boyfriend Swap by Meredith Schorr

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My Review:

If you are looking for an escape this holiday season The Boyfriend Swap by Meredith Schorr is just what you need!  So Robyn is a teacher and she is dating an actor.  Her family would like her to meet a guy with ambition and some success but they are always disappointed with the creative types she is drawn to.  Sydney is a lawyer at her father’s law firm and she is dating a lawyer.  Her father is obsessed with the law and tends to talk business incessantly; something she has no patience for.  Ann Marie is Robyn’s roommate and she works for Sydney at the law firm.  The three girls were together at a wine party and Robyn and Sydney were discussing their trepidations about bringing home their respective boyfriends for the holidays when Ann Marie suggested they swap  for the weekend.  It would take the pressure off and the guys wouldn’t be left home.  Sounded like a perfect solution that would eliminate their concerns…Surely nothing would go wrong…

Reminiscent of Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement, another fun read where a theoretically great idea leads to the unexpected in reality, The Boyfriend Swap is a little steamy, funny with a few surprises, Meredith Schorr thoroughly entertained me with this well written, romantic comedy that would be delightful for the big screen!  Take the stress off this holiday season and pick up a copy (great Secret Santa gift, too!)!

As seen on Goodreads:

Is Christmas really the most wonderful time of the year? New Yorkers Robyn Lane and Sidney Bellows aren’t so sure.

Robyn has always dated struggling creative types. For once, her parents would love her to bring someone with health insurance and a 401(k) to their Chrismukkah celebration. Her actor boyfriend doesn’t qualify. While across town, Sidney’s professional life already belongs to her parents. She’s an attorney at her father’s law firm and she works tirelessly to keep her love life private. If she brings her lawyer boyfriend to their annual Christmas extravaganza, her parents will have the wedding planned by New Year’s Eve.

A mutual friend playfully suggests they trade boyfriends for the holidays. The women share a laugh, but after copious amounts of wine, decide The Boyfriend Swap could be the perfect solution. This way, Robyn can show off her stable attorney boyfriend and Sidney’s high-society family will take no interest in her flakey actor beau.

It’s a brilliant plan—in theory. In practice—not so much. When Will turns out to be the boy-next-door Robyn crushed on hard throughout her teenage years, and Sidney’s family fawns all over Perry like he’s an Oscar-winner rather than a D-list wannabe, one thing is certain: The Boyfriend Swap might just change their lives forever.

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About the Author:

A born and bred New Yorker, Meredith Schorr discovered her passion for writing when she began to enjoy drafting work-related emails way more than she was probably supposed to. After trying her hand penning children’s stories and blogging her personal experiences, Meredith found her calling writing chick lit and contemporary women’s fiction. She secures much inspiration from her day job as a hard-working trademark paralegal and her still single (but looking) status. Meredith is also the co-founder of BookBuzz, a live author/reader event held annually. She is a loyal New York Yankees fan and an avid runner. Novelista Girl is her fifth novel.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

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My Review:

Sourdough by Robin Sloan is perfect blend of culinary secrets and technological experiments.  Lois is a programmer who spends her endless days writing code and programming a robot arm.  She resorts to drinking a Slurry (an unappealing nutritional concoction) for lunch during the day, and ordering delivery of spicy soup with delicious bread from a neighborhood hole in the wall at night.  She falls into this comfortable routine and when the delivery guy tells her he and his brother, the chef, have to leave the country, she is distraught. Because she had become to them the “Number One Eater”, they are leaving her with a valuable secret…the special starter for the sourdough bread she adores, and they asked her to keep it alive.  Now burdened with the task of baking the perfect loaf, Lois builds an oven and teaches herself to bake.  The secret recipe they left her with is amazing and she begins selling the beautiful and tasty loaves to her company’s caterer, who encourages Lois to sell at the farmer’s market.  Working at the robotics company by day and baking at night, she has little sleep, but is energized.

The popular farmer’s market does not accept her but she is welcome at the mysterious underground market where food is being improved with technology, and unique and unusual products are being developed and sold.  Lois uses her engineering prowess to take on the job of programming the robotic arm to crack eggs, a challenging task, per the request of the market’s sinister leader, so the arm can assist her in the baking process.  Her love of baking and feeding people who enjoy her sourdough bread is overwhelmingly fulfilling and she leaves her programming job to bake full time.

This book was charming and fun, with several chapters devoted to The Lois Club, a club Lois was a member of where she attending meetings with other Lois’s in her neighborhood.  Working long hours and baking bread at night, Lois didn’t have much time to develop friendships so this group of women were her support.  Loved Robin Sloan’s quirky characters, the story of Lois and the inherited sourdough recipe and enjoyed the fast pace and charm!

I’m probably not going to start baking bread any time soon, although a loaf of warm sourdough with salted butter would be delicious…but having so many friends already with my same name, I am tempted to start a Jennifer Club!

 

As seen on Goodreads:

Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouthwatering sourdough bread.
Lois becomes the unlikely hero tasked to care for it, bake with it and keep this needy colony of microorganisms alive.  Soon she is baking loaves daily and taking them to the farmer’s market, where an exclusive close-knit club runs the show.
When Lois discovers another, more secret market, aiming to fuse food and technology, a whole other world opens up. But who are these people, exactly?

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About the Author:

Robin Sloan is the author of the novels Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough. He grew up near Detroit and now splits his time between the Bay Area and the internet.

White Fur by Jardine Libaire

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My Review:

The more I think about this novel, the more I love White Fur.  It’s the 1980s and Elise, a school dropout and recently homeless young girl is living in New Haven with a friend she met on the street.  Jamey is one of the white, privileged and wealthy guys in the apartment next door; the longtime buddies are students at Yale and everything material has been given to them on a silver platter.  The unlikely attraction between Elise and Jamey is powerful, lustful and trepidatious on Jamey’s part, as Elise is from low-class, poor, unsophisticated stock, and although she has big love for her family and knows what she wants out of life, his fancy and pretentious family and trust fund friends would not be receptive.  Their quirky relationship starts out behind closed doors, mostly confidential and strictly sexual in nature, and as their mysterious attraction builds they slowly become a couple.

Elise, always clad in her white fur coat, something she acquired in a trade on the streets, loves Jamey for who he is and not for the money.  Jamey becomes whole as he blossoms under the devotion of Elise and her unconditional love for him; his upscale life has proven money can’t buy you love, and he gives up his fortune to be with his girl.  They spend the summer together; the bright lights and the dark alleys, the lust and grime of  1980s NYC come alive when they move there for Jamey’s summer internship and between sexual escapades, experiences with new friends, evidence of white privilege and being on the receiving end of relentless judgement, they stick together and in the process he saves her from a life of being alone and she saves him from a meaningless existence of wealth with shallow relationships.

Beautifully written with some shock value and sprinkled with description that triggered memories of my own time in NYC (not the raunchy parts, more like the mention of Dorrian’s on the upper east side!), Jardaine Libaire tells the story of a girl who is neither white nor black who does not identify with any group and a boy who challenges the expectations of his family all in the name of love.  One the outside, Elise appears to be a lost soul, but she is solid and in touch with her wants and needs while Jamey looks the part of a successful, young, wealthy well-adjusted guy yet he is broken and unsure of who he is.  Author Jardine Libaire’s story causes you tho think about what is truly important in life and relationships and the meaning and importance of family.  As much as Elise and Jamey were addicted to each other, I was addicted to White Fur!  A wonderful and unique story of love with a crazy and unexpected ending!

As seen on Goodreads:

When Elise Perez meets Jamey Hyde on a desolate winter afternoon, fate implodes, and neither of their lives will ever be the same. Although they are next-door neighbors in New Haven, they come from different worlds. Elise grew up in a housing project without a father and didn’t graduate from high school. Jamey is a junior at Yale, heir to a private investment bank fortune and beholden to high family expectations. The attraction is instant, and what starts out as sexual obsession turns into something greater, stranger, and impossible to ignore.

The unlikely couple moves to Manhattan in hopes of forging an adult life together, but Jamey’s family intervenes in desperation, and the consequences of staying together are suddenly severe. And when a night out with old friends takes a shocking turn, Jamey and Elise find themselves fighting not just for their love but also for their lives.

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About the Author, Jardine Libaire:

I’m a fiend for books, bookstores, lit journals, found poetry, libraries, graffiti, artist books, diaries, screenplays—anything that tells a story. My MFA is from Michigan, which is a dearly beloved program. For the last ten years, I’ve been living in Austin, TX, a city that is very sweet + kind to artists 😉 Over the decades, I’ve worked as a motel chambermaid, real estate agent, dishwasher, bartender, assistant to a perfume designer, art model, copywriter, grantwriter, and restaurant manager. I worship at the feet of Willa Cather. Every Thursday evening, I facilitate a storytelling class at the Lockhart Women’s Prison here in Texas, and I’ve learned more about life from the women in the class than I have taught them, I’m quite sure. Right now I’m working on a new book about a cheetah and a deaf teenager.

William S. Burroughs said: ‘Hustlers of the world, there is one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside.’ And Dolly Parton said: ‘I would never stoop so low as to be fashionable.’ And Oscar Wilde said: ‘It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.’ I love them all! xo