1980s Chicago and the AIDs Crisis – 2015 Paris terrorism and cults. An incredibly moving story of friendships and loss. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

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My Review:

Chicago is the third largest city in the US and we rarely associate it with the AIDs epidemic, yet, the city and its people were deeply impacted by the then mysterious and untreatable, deadly disease.  Rebecca Makkai set the story, The Great Believers  in her beloved hometown and takes us through overwhelmingly emotional times as we witness deep friendships, brotherly camaraderie, romantic and platonic love, unwavering support and devastating depression and loss.

It is 1985 Chicago, and Yale Tishman, the Director of Development at the new art gallery at Northwestern University is working on an exciting and valuable acquisition.  His career in the art world is taking off at the same time AIDs has reared its’ ugly head and sadly, Yale loses his best friend Nico. Then, one after another his other friends and acquaintances are getting sick and dying. Yale tries to be a good friend to others as he grapples with his life and this dangerous disease that is making his social circle smaller and smaller.  Nico’s loyal younger sister, Fiona is all he has left of his tight little community and they both struggle with the fears they face and the losses they have experienced.

Author Rebecca Makkai alternates back and forth in time and jumping ahead, in 2015, Fiona goes to Paris in search of her daughter, who has run away and joined a cult.   Their relationship is estranged and at best strained.  During her search, Fiona stays with an artistic friend from her youth who has documented the 1980s AIDs crisis through art and has a show scheduled in Paris during her stay.  Time in France gives Fiona opportunity to try and deal with the trauma of her past, the loss of her brother and his friends, and understand how it has affected her relationship with her daughter.

Makkai has developed complete and complex characters that I feel like I know and truly care about.  Her writing evokes overwhelming emotion and I love how the two time periods are weaved together through her compelling storytelling.  Some people compare this book to A Little Life, and yes, both are gut wrenching and sad, but in The Great Believers there is a well researched overview of Chicago history and AIDs in the 1980s, a window into the art world, terrorism in 2015 Paris, so much love, friendship and family…a much warmer novel that combines the burden of memories with hope and positivity.  I highly recommend this book – great for book clubs!

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About the author:

 

Rebecca Makkai’s first story, at the age of three, was printed on the side of a cardboard box and told from the viewpoint of her stuffed Smurf doll. Sadly, her fiction has never since reached such heights of experimentalism.

Rebecca holds an MA from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and a BA from Washington and Lee University. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her short fiction has been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize XLI (2017), The Best American Short Stories 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 and 2009, New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Fantasy, and featured on Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts and This American Life.

Rebecca has two young daughters. She does not run marathons or do cartwheels, but she does know how to make marshmallows. She was an elementary Montessori teacher for the twelve years before the publication of her first book.

Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, and an O Magazine selection.

Her second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse; Library Journal called it “stunning, ambitious, readable and intriguing.” It was chosen as the Chicago Writers Association’s novel of the year, and received raves in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.

Her short story collection, Music for Wartime, appeared in July, 2015.

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Tin Man by Sarah Winman

 

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My Review:

Tin Man, a tender and beautiful story, is heartbreaking and wonderfully moving.  At twelve years old, Ellis and Michael become friends.  They both have difficult family lives and less than stellar relationships with their fathers.  They spend lots of time together having fun and exploring their town outside of London, and then, their close friendship becomes something more.

Ten years later, Ellis is married to Annie and Michael is out of the picture.  Ellis is burdened with shame, stemming from his past, his insecurities about who he really is and fear of his father.  Author Sarah Winman writes about Ellis and Michael as young boys and as grown men, telling us all that happened in between.  It is a complex love story of sorts, really, a life story of two men, their choices and regrets, and also a story of strong women who allow these men to journey toward their own truths by providing love, support, friendship and family.  With memories of love and loneliness, these wonderful characters and powerful relationships are captivating, expressive and unforgettable.  For me, other compelling and interesting parts of the story include Van Gogh’s painting of The Sunflowers, France during the summer of 1969, and the late 1980’s AIDS epidemic.

Don’t be fooled by the small, diary-size of this novel – it packs a wonderful and powerful 5-star punch.

 

Tin Man Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Sarah Winman (born 1964) is a British actress and author. In 2011 her debut novel When God Was a Rabbit became an international bestseller and won Winman several awards including New Writer of the Year in the Galaxy National Book Awards.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

 

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My Review:

Four children from a Jewish family on the lower east side of Manhattan visit a psychic in the summer of 1969 and are told the date they will die.  Does this information, this prediction, change the way they choose to live?  That question is left unanswered in The Immortalists, as we follow each of the siblings’ lives.   Author Chloe Benjamin provides us with a mesmerizing story of these rich characters, and their choices about how to live.  Simon, the youngest brother, moves to California to live his truth and gets caught up in the reckless ’80s sexual revolution.  His journey out west begins with his sister Klara, who is irresponsible in many ways and chooses to become a magician.  Daniel, the oldest brother is conflicted at work; he is a doctor in the army and must give clearance to young men, less fortunate than he. to serve in the military.  And Vanya is involved in anti-aging research, as she reduces caloric intake of primates to extend their lives.  We witness the strengthening and deterioration of relationships and we hope things will turn out ok, but do they?  Throughout the book I couldn’t help but question if the characters’ choices were made because of the knowledge they received regarding their death.

Another question to think about is:  quality or quantity…do you want to live a long time or live well during the time you have?  Would you want to know the date of your own death?

Some of what Chloe Benjamin writes about is based on her own knowledge and experiences; she grew up in California in the 80s, with a gay parent, a Jewish parent, and immigrant grandparents.  She was a ballet dancer and her mother was an actor…all of which influenced the setting and characters.  She also did massive research to learn about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military, primate research, magicians and magic.  The narrative was rich with information and I really enjoyed the format, each section written about a different character.

The Immortalists, for me, was a lesson about embracing life and trying not to worry about the unknown.  It is a balance, like science and religion, to navigate our lives by making choices based on what we know to be true and what we believe is true.  I highly recommend this book!

As seen on Goodreads:

If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

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About the Author:

Chloe Benjamin is the author of THE IMMORTALISTS, a New York Times Bestseller, #1 Indie Next Pick for January 2018, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, #1 Library Reads pick, and Amazon Best Book of the Month.

Her first novel, THE ANATOMY OF DREAMS (Atria, 2014), received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

Her novels have been translated into over twenty-three languages. A graduate of Vassar College and the M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Wisconsin, Chloe lives with her husband in Madison, WI.

NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW by Maggie Kneip

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As stated in Goodreads:

After a fairy-tale courtship in 1980s New York City, Maggie’s young marriage shatters when her “perfect” husband–a star editor at The Wall Street Journal–is diagnosed with and dies of AIDS, leaving her with two young children in a city electrified by paranoia about the new epidemic. Devastated by his betrayal, Maggie struggles to protect herself and her children from stigma, keeping the circumstances of her husband’s death a secret for nearly twenty-five years. It is only when a journey of self-discovery aligns with her children’s coming of age and a new world of sexual tolerance that she can finally embrace the truth and set herself free.

With a foreword by former Wall Street Journal editor Laura Landro and an afterword by psychologist Dr. Dale Atkins, a frequent commentator on NBC’s Today Show, NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW is an honest, unflinching look at the damaging nature of family secrets and an inspiring call to embrace every truth–the good, the bad, the ugly–that makes us who we are.

Tony Goldwyn, Actor and Director says:

“I first met Maggie Kneip when she was 9 months pregnant with her second child. Less than a year later, her husband John would die of AIDS. In the wake of this unspeakable trauma, I watched Maggie bravely, tirelessly rebuild her life and raise two extraordinary kids. Familiar as I was with her story, nothing prepared me for the transcendent power of NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW. Maggie’s unflinchingly honest memoir of loss, grief, and ultimately triumphant self-discovery is a book for anyone affected by the plague of AIDS, anyone who has struggled to process grief and make sense of the bewildering randomness of life and death.”

 

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Author Maggie Kneip (right) appearing with Psychologist Dr. Dale Atkins (left).

Maggie Kneip is a veteran of the publishing industry, with more than two decades in publicity and marketing at Bertelsmann, Scholastic Inc., and Abrams Books.  Often with Dr. Dale Atkins, she visits synagogues, churches, libraries and civic organizations to talk about NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW, and the challenge of relationship and family secrets. She has also met with book clubs to talk about NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW, coast-to-coast. Maggie has performed as a singer at such Manhattan clubs as the Laurie Beechman Theatre and the Metropolitan Room.  Learn more about her at www.maggiekneip.com.

My thoughts:

Meeting Maggie today, a strong, independent woman with two gorgeous adult children, many interests and talents, involved with her community and lots of friends, one might be shocked when they read about her journey.  Maggie married John in the 1980s; he was the love of her life. Shortly after their second child was born he became ill and after a trip to the hospital and some tests he and Maggie were given the news…he had AIDS and just a short time to live.  No apology and no explanation; no conversations were to be had and no truths were revealed.  And while caring for two babies, taking over the running of the household and the finances, she graciously cared for him until his passing.

The times dictated secrecy due to fear and lack of education and information on the virus.  Maggie was not able to tell anyone what happened to her husband, she had to protect her children, move out of town, avoid the truth and project strength until her kids grew up and society became more sexually tolerant and developed life saving treatments for AIDS.

In this honest, beautifully written memoir, NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW, Maggie opens up and tells her story of love, disappointment, betrayal and secrecy, bringing to light the destruction and damage a secret can inflict on a loved one, a relationship and a family.

Order NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW HERE

 

Fiction You Shouldn’t Miss

Great new books are being published all the time and it is not easy to keep up.  Here are several of my favorite fictional novels from the recent past.  Have you read them all?

 

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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

As stated in Goodreads:

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

 

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All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

As stated in Goodreads:

As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.

 

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

As stated in Goodreads:

Despite their differences, sisters Vianne and Isabelle have always been close. Younger, bolder Isabelle lives in Paris while Vianne is content with life in the French countryside with her husband Antoine and their daughter. But when the Second World War strikes, Antoine is sent off to fight and Vianne finds herself isolated so Isabelle is sent by their father to help her.

As the war progresses, the sisters’ relationship and strength are tested. With life changing in unbelievably horrific ways, Vianne and Isabelle will find themselves facing frightening situations and responding in ways they never thought possible as bravery and resistance take different forms in each of their actions.

 

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The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

As stated in Goodreads:

Like most gentiles in Nazi-occupied Paris, architect Lucien Bernard has little empathy for the Jews. So when a wealthy industrialist offers him a large sum of money to devise secret hiding places for Jews, Lucien struggles with the choice of risking his life for a cause he doesn’t really believe in. Ultimately he can’t resist the challenge and begins designing expertly concealed hiding spaces—behind a painting, within a column, or inside a drainpipe—detecting possibilities invisible to the average eye. But when one of his clever hiding spaces fails horribly and the immense suffering of Jews becomes incredibly personal, he can no longer deny reality.

Written by an expert whose knowledge imbues every page, this story becomes more gripping with every life the architect tries to save.

 

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

As stated in Goodreads:

In this striking literary debut, Carol Rifka Brunt unfolds a moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends and find that sometimes you don’t know you’ve lost someone until you’ve found them.

1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

An emotionally charged coming-of-age novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a tender story of love lost and found, an unforgettable portrait of the way compassion can make us whole again.

 

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The Rent Collector by Cameron Wright

As stated in Goodreads:

Survival for Ki Lim and Sang Ly is a daily battle at Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in all of Cambodia. They make their living scavenging recyclables from the trash. Life would be hard enough without the worry for their chronically ill child, Nisay, and the added expense of medicines that are not working. Just when things seem worst, Sang Ly learns a secret about the bad-tempered rent collector who comes demanding money–a secret that sets in motion a tide that will change the life of everyone it sweeps past.

The Rent Collector is a story of hope, of one woman’s journey to save her son and another woman’s chance at redemption.

 

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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

As stated in Goodreads:

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.