Gender Roles, Arranged Marriages and the Challenges Immigrant Families Face; A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum Captures the Love and Pain in these Arab Women’s Limitations

A Woman Is No Man

My Review:

This is a captivating story of three women of different generations in the same family.  In A Woman Is No ManEtaf Rum shows us the challenges of Palestinian immigrants who are “torn between two cultures and struggling to start anew”.  She reveals the truth about life and all that must be endured as an Arab woman in America.

Back and forth in time, we meet Isra, a young girl in Palestine who has an arranged marriage to Adam.  The young couple moves to Brooklyn to start a family; Isra is lonely and afraid but hopeful she can win over the hearts of her new husband and mother in law.  Fareeda, Adam’s mother, is a strong woman with stringent rules and specific ways of doing things.  Along with shouldering the sins of her past, Fareeda’s respect for tradition and customs influences her actions and interactions with her sons, their wives and her grandchildren.  Deya is a teenager living in Brooklyn with her three sisters and Palestinian grandparents.  Her parents, Isra and Adam, died when she was 7, and she is being raised with the customs from Palestine by her grandmother, Fareeda.

Deya does not want an arranged marriage at 17, she want to go to college and choose her own partner when she is ready to settle down, but her American dreams will be squashed if Fareeda has anything to say about it.

“To want what you can’t have in this life is the greatest pain of all .”

Fareeda believes in arranged marriages, that sons are more valuable than daughters, and women should do all the housework and raise the children.  She is haunted by her past and chooses to stick by her traditions. “Fareeda knew her granddaughter could never understand how shame could grow and morph and swallow someone until she had no choice but to pass it along so that she wasn’t forced to bear it alone. “

In Palestine, abuse was common. There was no government protection and women believed they were worthless and deserved to be beaten.  They were dependent on men, had no education and were filled with so much shame.  The hurt, disappointment, anger and violence got passed down until the new generation stood up for their rights as American women.

Author Etaf Rum created characters strong in their convictions, yet weakened under the pressure of deep struggles…and I felt deeply for all of them.  I wanted Isra to find love in her marriage, approval from her mother in law, joy in motherhood and her daughters, and purpose in her life.  Fareeda deserved to feel at peace with her choices of the past and her granddaughter, Deya, had the right to an education and to make her own choices regarding a life partner.

A Woman Is No Man was not just about women, but men, too. Most of the characters stood by their cultural roles (either to be oppressive or to be oppressed), and were challenged to break free from what the old Palestinian society expected. The men and women in the story were equally weak; Isra’s husband, Adam, in accepting his position of strength as head of the family, found no way out. Suffering under the pressures of being the first born son, he could have spoken up, but he wanted to please his parents.  Similarly, Isra wanted her in-laws’ approval and the love of her husband, despite not wanting the arranged marriage. Struggle within the confines of the traditions to raise a family in this country presented challenges that many families new to America are subjected to.  Ultimately, individuality and confidence the younger generations develop, being exposed to life as Americans, gives them the courage to bend the family rules and go for what they want.

Etaf Rum gives us a peek into Arab traditions, superstitions, and customs, conveying the challenges of teaching the old ways to the new generations.  She also provides us with a good look into why Palestinian women may want to take on a more American approach to life to increase their self worth and independence.

I could not put this book down, loved it and highly recommend it…great for a book club discussion!

 

Watch Jenna Bush’s interview with Etaf Rum on The Today Show. and if you enjoy immigrant stories, I also recommend reading A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Goodreads Summary

About the Author

Etaf Rum

The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She has a Masters of Arts in American and British Literature as well as undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and English Composition and teaches undergraduate courses in North Carolina, where she lives with her two children. Etaf also runs the Instagram account @booksandbeans and is also a Book of the Month Club Ambassador, showcasing
her favorite selections each month. A Woman Is No Man is her first novel.

Glamorous, Hot and Steamy… Cape May by Chip Cheek Is Where Young Newlyweds Are Overcome By Desire. This is Not Your Mother’s Honeymoon!

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My review:

Desire and early marriage are a perfect match but on their honeymoon in Cape May, the brand new and unfamiliar feeling of lust sends naive newlyweds Effie and Henry down a dangerous path. Can they retrace their steps and go back to pure and innocent times, or will their unforgivable actions alter the course of their relationship forever?

Chip Cheek’s debut, Cape May, is set in 1957 and the innocent, young couple is right out of high school. After a disappointing few days on their honeymoon in a sleepier than what they expected, New Jersey seaside village, where their fun and togetherness feels awkward, forced and unnatural, they decide to return home to Georgia early. But a chance meeting with beautiful, socialite neighbors who are having a party change their minds and boy, do things heat up. Socializing, drinking, dancing, swimming and sailing with the people down the street add energy and excitement and contribute to the electricity in the air. Having great fun in the vacation mode, and experiencing thrills and lowered inhibitions lead Effie and Henry, along with the neighbors, to sexual experimentation, manipulation and betrayals.

This book is steamy and fast paced – a good, hot beach read. It was a little too “50 Shades of Grey” for me personally, but I still enjoyed and appreciated the story of the loss of innocence in a new marriage, the inner conflicts regarding morality and the impact continually flowing cocktails, clandestine meetings in the night and sexual freedom can have. This is not your mother’s honeymoon!

Q & A with Chip Cheek from publisher’s website

Goodreads Summary

Chip Cheek author photo

About the Author:

CHIP CHEEK’s stories have appeared in the Southern Review, Harvard Review and Washington Square, among others. He’s been awarded scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center. CAPE MAY is his debut novel.

Young Korean Refugee Sacrifices Love and Education for Stability in If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

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My Review:

This wonderful debut novel, If You Leave Me, centers around five characters growing up during and after the Korean war.  Haemi is a spirited, willful and independent 16 year old refugee who lives with and feels responsible for her widowed mother and her sickly younger brother, Hyunki.  She and her lifelong friend, Kyungwan, are experiencing young love, but he wants to get an education and be a better man before he expresses his feelings.  Kyungwan’s older, wealthier cousin, Jisoo, has no immediate family, and he also takes a liking to Haemi.  Before he goes off to war he asks her to marry him, with the hope that when he returns he will have family waiting for him.  Jisoo can ensure less struggling and provide food and medicine for Haemi and her family.  Despite her connection with Kyungwan, her hope of having a life with him, and her desire for education, she ignores her emotions and accepts Jisoo’s proposal, knowing this union will provide stability and financial security for her aging mother and sick brother, and will allow all of them to continue living together.  Understanding he cannot provide the security Haemi needs, Kyungwan leaves.  Jisoo returns from war and he and Haemi have children, but she struggles with life and loss, and has a difficult time finding peace with her decisions.  After 11 years, Kyungwan returns for a short visit…

If You Leave Me is a war story and a love story; life choices are influenced by the Korean war and the challenges of being a refugee.  Crystal Hana Kim takes us through 16 years and we witness the struggles…what they do for love and what love does to them.  This is a generational saga with multiple prospectives over time, and we see how the old and the young are influenced by western culture as it is integrated into Korean life. Families are torn apart during the civil war in Korea, and the people are desperately trying to repair their lives. If You Leave Me is about difficult decisions, the security found in new families, and the unforgettable ache of lost love.  If you loved Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, you will love this one!

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Crystal Hana Kim Book Talk

Upbringing

I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Crystal Hana Kim and as always, hearing from the author enhanced my understanding of where the story ideas came from and gave me a deeper appreciation for the creativity, effort and final product.  I learned that Crystal’s  Korean maternal grandmother came to New York to help raise her for a few years when she was a baby and then returned home to Korea where she goes to visit every year.  Crystal remains close to her grandmother and they keep in touch through texts and selfies.  Her parents are immigrants and throughout her childhood they spoke Korean,  were influenced by the culture and ate Korean food at home.  When Crystal went to school she felt people did not understand her or know who she was.  When she told a boy she was Korean he said no, she must be either Chinese or Japanese.  Shocked to realize Americans knew little about Korea she decided she would one day write about her culture and her family’s country.

Grandmother

Crystal’s grandmother often tells her stories about her youth and how she was a teenage refugee and had to flee her home during the Korean war.  She talks to her about poverty and the restraints on women and how marriage gave her stability even though she wanted an education, likely influencing Haemi’s character development in If You Leave Me.  (In order to fulfill her dream of education today, Crystal’s grandmother is taking harmonica lessons and is in a poetry class!)

Research

Research for the novel started with Crystal’s knowledge of Korea and her own personal family experiences and traditions, and then expanded to a civilian focused effort, interviewing many of her Korean relatives.  Her hope was to create a novel that was vivid, descriptive and portrayed family and cultural history with integrity, and I believe she was hugely successful.  I loved If You Leave Me and highly recommend it.

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Q & A with Crystal Hana Kim

Q:  I enjoyed the multiple perspectives in If You Leave Me, and each character painted a vivid picture of their life and surroundings.  I know you are a first generation American…have you been to Korea?  How much of your story came from your experiences or people you know? Did your parents’ experiences influence your story?

A:  I grew up going to Korea every summer because my mother’s side of the family all live there. She wanted to make sure that my sister and I spent as much time with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins so that we could maintain strong ties despite the physical distance. The stories in If You Leave Me are all fictitious; my favorite part of writing is creating characters, lives, and circumstances. My grandparents all survived the Korean War, and the tragedy of this war did inspire me to write about this particular time, but the characters are all my own. 

Q:  All your characters were flawed and realistic – and the war and political situation influenced their life choices and decisions.   In addition, the western cultural influences had an impact and it seemed like traditional values were being challenged by new thinking.  Do you think people who live through these type of unstable times and suffer terrible loss can recover from them and find happiness?

A:  I’m an optimist, so yes, I believe in the resilience of humankind. However, I do think that the ways in which we cope with violence, civil war, hunger, and tragedy depends on the individual. There are so many factors that shape our individual selves, from our family relationships to cultural expectations to our access to class, privilege, and opportunity. In If You Leave Me, my goal was to create a complex, diverse group of characters who felt as real and human as possible.   

Q:  We never find out who received the yellow dress but are made to feel like Jisoo bought it for another woman.  Why did you choose not to tell us who received it?  Did it not matter? (It came up in the book discussion!)

A:  Ah, the yellow dress! I prefer books that do not tie up every loose end, that instead allows room for the reader to make their own judgments. What the yellow dress represented—mistrust, disloyalty, and the fracturing in Haemi and Jisoo’s relationship—were more important and interesting to me than neatly concluding whether or not Jisoo bought a dress for another woman.  

Q:  Haemi loses everything over the course of her short life…her father dies, she spends her childhood caring for her widowed mother and ailing brother, she gives up her relationship with Kyunghwan so her family has financial stability, she sacrifices her will to be educated to become a wife to a man she doesn’t love and she loses her brother.  She mentions several times how she has a hard time recovering after pregnancy.  She also was so angry and seemed to recognize this and try to control it at times.  Did Haemi have post partum depression or a mental illness? 

A:  Haemi had to sacrifice a lot for her family, and yet there were real moments of joy in her life as well. For example, even in her relationship to Jisoo, there is a form of love in the earlier years of their marriage. Even though she finds motherhood difficult and is not the perfect caretaker, she also deeply loves her children. I wanted her life to be complex and yet realistic to the time she grew up in. 

I specifically depicted Haemi struggling after pregnancy because I wanted to write about a strong female character suffering from post partum depression. Haemi tries to articulate how she is feeling to those around her, but they cannot comprehend her illness and thus have no empathy for her. I wanted to showcase how frustrating this could feel for a mother of young children—in addition to suffering from post partum, she does not have the vocabulary to articulate her illness to others.   

Q:  How long did it take you to write this book?

A:  In 2011, when I started my graduate studies in MFA at Columbia University, I began writing about Haemi and Solee. I was interested in their mother-daughter relationship and their circumstances. As I wrote scenes from their perspectives, the other characters began to take shape. At first, I thought I was working on an interconnected short story collection about a Korean family over three generations. In 2014, I realized that I could take part of that collection and turn it into a novel. At that point, the premise and scope of If You Leave Me was born, and it was published a few years later in 2018. 

Q:  Would you ever consider writing a book centered on one of the daughters as a continuation?

A:  Yes, I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing a book about the daughters in their adult years! I think it would be interesting to explore the different trajectories these daughters’ lives would take as they grapple with their childhoods, their mother’s leaving, and Korea’s modernization. I also think this could be a way to explore immigration to the United States, which, as the daughter of Korean immigrants, I would love to write about.  

Q:  What 3 books have you read recently that you recommend?

A:  There are so many books I’d recommend! Chemistry by Weike Wang was published in 2017, but I read it this year. Chemistry is a funny and moving story about an indecisive Chinese American Phd Chemistry candidate trying to understand what she wants out of life. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) is a slim, powerful, eerie, and odd conversation between a sick young woman in a rural hospital and a young boy. It’s an unsettling book that is difficult to describe but that will stay with you for a long time. The Return by Hisham Matar is a memoir about the author’s return to Libya to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his father decades before. 

Q:  What books are on your nightstand that you are looking forward to reading?

A:  I am very excited to read Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, and American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. 

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Crystal Hana Kim holds an MFA from Columbia University and is a contributing editor for Apogee Journal. She has received numerous awards, including PEN America’s Story Prize for Emerging Writers, along with fellowships and support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Born and raised in New York, she currently lives in Chicago.

Enjoy the Crazy, Behind the Scenes Look at Suburbia in this humorous, satirical debut novel, White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf.

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My Review:

Having grown up and currently living in a small town in suburbia, where over time, modest houses are knocked down and replaced by mansions, trees are removed so yards can have more sunlight, and neighbors have disputes over fences, branches, mailboxes and plowing, I have witnessed communities caught up in grievances surrounding property lines, barking dogs and early morning leaf blowing.  Author Julie Langsdorf creates Willard Park, a small town outside of Washington DC where amidst the community craziness we meet well meaning, imperfect characters living their lives to the best of their abilities. Those of us living in suburban areas outside of cities will relate to this slice of life, entertaining debut, White Elephant where neighborly tensions run high and add to the stress of everyday life, tired marriages and over exposed mortgages.

In this satirical debut that is a slightly exaggerated reality and consistently humorous, we are given a peak into suburbia and all the secrets.  Julie Langsdorf digs deep to uncover the real people in the neighborhood, their lack of communication and honestly with themselves and each other, their insecurities and private affairs along with their hopes and ideas of what it means to achieve the American Dream.  White Elephant is an enjoyable snapshot of Anytown, USA where crazy things happen and it’s just another day!

Q & A with Julie Langsdorf

Q:  How did you come up with the idea to write a book about neighborhood tension stemming from the presence of a big new house, nicknamed the White Elephant?

A:  I was inspired to write the book in 2005, when a series of articles in The Washington Post and other D.C. publications detailed the chaos that was going on in some of the area’s older, established communities. People were moving into these towns and tearing down the older houses and building new, often enormous houses, much to the older residents’ chagrin. Neighbors were egging one another, yelling at each other in the street, and suing each other. It was such a big, juicy mess I couldn’t resist writing about it. 

Q:  Did you grow up in suburbia and are any of the characters based on people you know?

A:  I grew up in a small town that bears some similarities to the fictional town of Willard Park. There’s a children’s library and houses that range from gracious Victorians to 1960’s split levels. The only character who is based on someone is Terrance, Ted’s twin brother, who is modeled after my own brother, Kenny—one of the sweetest people I know. 

Q:  Willard Park seemed familiar to me and I am sure to many who read White Elephant.  Do you think people living in many suburban towns experience similar disagreements?  

A:  I think it’s a widespread problem. I’ve heard from people all over the country who say it feels like their neighborhood! We all have different ideas about the American Dream; sometimes it’s hard to reconcile those concepts within a community. 

Q:  As I was reading I was thinking the characters belong in a soap opera and then again, this small town outside of DC is an example of so many upper middle class towns…from the dispute over the trees and new houses, to the intimacy issues and infidelity, pot smoking, truancy, illness, wannabe artists, small business owners, coffee shops, town festivals, and even a community theater performance of Annie Get Your Gun…it all rings true and seems like a microcosm of the country today!   So many things happen yet the story keeps moving forward smoothly as if all the craziness is just the norm.  The satirical storytelling with a window into peoples’ lives was a joy to read.  Where did you get all your ideas?   

A:  Thank you for saying that it’s a microcosm of what’s going on today! It really feels that way to me. Willard Park is dealing with the intense stratification we are all confronting these days. It’s so hard for people to see the ‘other side,’ and we are at risk of vilifying those who have a different perspective. There is a lot of craziness in this book, but I’m not sure it’s that much crazier than things that are going on in real life! I love the way community theater pulls a town together. There’s something so sweet about townspeople singing and practicing lines together just for the joy of it; it’s an interesting contrast to the divisiveness they are all feeling. My daughter was in Annie Get Your Gun when she was a child, so I picked that one. It’s such a wonderfully over-the-top show. I never really know where my ideas come from; I like to give my mind plenty of space to wander so oddball ideas can surface when they are ready to. 

Q:  You portrayed this slice of life humorously and with great insight.  There are plenty of secrets between neighbors, friends and family members and open communication is minimal.  Most of the characters do bad things but they all have their reasons and although I felt frustrated at times, I forgave them. True feelings are revealed and obstacles are faced, all the while everyone is on their solo journey, searching for their own happiness.  Things get so messy and the characters are deeply intertwined…how did you organize the web of neighborhood relationships…did you draw it out on paper first or did you just write and it grew together?

A:  Yes, communication is an enormous problem in the book—not just among those who dislike each other, but even among those who love one another. I think it’s a problem in real life as well. I hope readers will feel they understand why the characters make the choices they do even if they disagree with them, and will feel that they are all human, despite their flaws. I don’t map it out, but I did carefully track each character’s journey toward the end of the writing process to make sure everyone’s story hangs together with the characters with whom they interact. 

Q:  Was there anything in the story that didn’t make the final cut?  

A:  I cut Nina, the realtor, as a narrator. She was a fun character to write, but in the end I didn’t think her voice added enough to the story. 

Q:  How long did it take you to write White Elephant and what are you working on now?

A:  I wrote White Elephant in about three years, between 2005 and 2008. A long time ago now! When I finished it, the bottom fell out of the market, so it wasn’t the book’s time—but things have come full circle in recent years. I recently finished another suburban comedy set in a different kind of Maryland town. It, too, is told from multiple points of view, and is very topical. I can’t reveal any more about it just yet, but I will as soon as I am able to! 

Q:  What three books have you read lately that you recommend?  And what is on your nightstand to read next?

A:  I loved Daisy Jones and The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which I listened to as an audiobook; I highly, highly recommend readers experience it in that way. I also highly recommend Angie Kim’s debut novel Miracle Creek, which will be published this Tuesday. It’s a courtroom drama you do not want to miss. I’m currently reading Oksana Behave!, by Maria Kuznetsova, which is a complete delight. She has such a fresh, fun voice. Next up is Mandy Berman’s Perennials. 

I enjoyed and recommend White Elephant.  For another humorous book that gives you a behind the scenes look – this time in politics and journalism in the newsroom, check out Amanda Wakes Up by Alisyn Camerota.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Julie Langsdorf has received four fiction grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and her short stories have appeared in several literary magazines. White Elephant, her debut novel, was named a new book to watch for and an editors’ choice by The New York Times, a book not to miss by USA Today, a highly anticipated debut novel by The LA Times, a best new book by Southern Living Magazine and Real Simple, and a Library Journal best debut.

Still Life With Monkey by Katharine Weber

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My Review:

It is always a special treat and enlightening to attend an author talk, and recently I was thrilled to hear Katharine Weber speak about her new book, Still Life With Monkey with contributing editor and former Book Review section editor for Publisher’s Weekly, Sybil Steinberg.  Between research and literary knowledge, the intelligence on the stage was vast.  With sophisticated language and deep characters, Weber’s Still Life With Monkey is a must read for all book groups.  There are many stories within the story and much to discuss.

Duncan Wheeler is a talented architect and owner of his own firm in New Haven, CT.      He was visiting his Thimble Islands site and while driving home on I95 with his assistant, was in a car accident.  His assistant was killed and he survived but suffered injury that resulted in becoming a quadriplegic.  His wife Laura, is an art conservator at the Yale Art Gallery, fixing broken things for a living.  She sees Duncan fall into depression, and while she struggles with her own thoughts of letting go her dream to become a mother, she reduces her hours at work so she can take care of her husband.  Every day had become “a broken series of unsuccessful gestures”, his will to live is wavering, and so to add to the already growing number of hired aides to help take care of Duncan, and to lift his spirits, she requests a capuchin monkey to become a part of their in home support.  Ottoline was feisty, charming and lovable – a welcoming character who gave Duncan some pleasure as he thought about how he might live and how he might exit this life. Will sitting around in a wheelchair all day be Duncan’s life?  Is being alive the same as living?

Not only are we forced to ponder what a life worth living may be, but Katharine Weber teaches us about architecture and art conservation, about care for a paraplegic and about helper monkeys.  In CT, helper monkeys are not legal, but in MA there is a legitimate program that has been around for close to 40 years called Helping Hands.  Katherine had the opportunity to meet a married couple and their helper monkey, Farah on numerous occasions, and witnessed the benefits the monkey provides like buttoning and unbuttoning, page turning, social interaction, bonding and emotional connection.  Farah is 7 lbs and 36 years old and is living with her 2nd and last family, as 40 years old is life expectancy for a monkey living in captivity.  Weber’s human characters are not based on real people, but Ottoline the capuchin was based on the charming and lovable Farah.

The character of Ottoline adds texture to an already rich story that highlights ideas about twins, children and secrets.  Duncan is a twin and had been considered the original, and his brother Gordon, the copy.  Duncan had a big life, was highly educated, married with a big job, and in contrast, Gordon had a speech impediment and rode his bike to work at a bookstore.  Interesting to examine their relationship and Gordon’s relationship with Laura, Duncan’s wife.  Also, worth looking at is the impact the neighborhood children have on Duncan’s mental health, and the effect secrets may have on relationships and self worth.

Still Life With Monkey is a story about life and relationships.  It is not a tearjerker yet it is filled with compassion and humor.  I highly recommend it for book clubs and discussion.

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Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Katharine Weber is the author of six novels and a memoir, all book group favorites. She is the Richard L. Thomas Professof of Cretaive Writing at Kenyon College.

Katharine’s fiction debut in print, the short story “Friend of the Family,” appeared in The New Yorker in January, 1993.

Her first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (of which that story was a chapter), was published by Crown Publishers, Inc. in 1995 and was published in paperback by Picador in 1996. She was named by Granta to the controversial list of 50 Best Young American Novelists in 1996.

Her second novel, The Music Lesson, was published by Crown Publishers, Inc. in 1999, and was published in paperback by Picador in 2000. The Music Lesson has been published in fourteen foreign editions.

The Little Women was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2003 and by Picador in 2004. All three novels weren named Notable Books by The New York Times Book Review. Writing in The New York Times, Richard Eder said, “Katharine Weber’s novel, which stops being droll only to be funny and almost never stops being exceedingly smart, is a hermit crab. Creeping into the whelk shell of Louisa May Alcott’s celebrated novel, it avails itself of the spirals to do double and triple twists inside them.”

Katharine’s fourth novel, Triangle, which takes up the notorious Triangle Waist company factory fire of 1911, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in 2007 by Picador. It was longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, was a Finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the Paterson Fiction Prize, and was the winner of the Connecticut Book Award for Fiction.

True Confections, Katharine’s fifth novel, was published in January 2010 by Shaye Areheart Books, and was published in paperback by Broadway Books in December, 2010. In January Broadway also brought out a new edition of The Music Lesson. Triangle and The Music Lesson are now available as ebooks, too.

Her sixth book, a memoir, The Memory Of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities, was published by Crown in July 2011, and by Broadway in 2012.

Her new novel, Still Life With Monkey, from Paul Dry Book is available now.

Katharine’s maternal grandmother was the songwriter Kay Swift. Since Swift’s death in 1993, Katharine has been a Trustee and the Administrator of the Kay Swift Memorial Trust, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting the music of Kay Swift. This work includes the first Broadway musical with a score by a woman, “Fine and Dandy,” and several popular show tunes of the era, among them “Fine and Dandy” and “Can’t We Be Friends?”

Song of a Captive Bird by Jazmin Darznik

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My Review:

The beautiful cover of this powerful debut caught my eye and after perusing the summary on the book jacket I was compelled to read and recommend this to one of my book groups.  We wanted to focus on strong women and Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik fits the bill!

This story, based on the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, focuses on a young Iranian girl who as a child pushed the envelope when it came to respectable, traditional, female behavior.  She had an interest in poetry, writing at eleven years old to get the attention of her strict father.   She was lucky enough to find a friend she connected with who enjoyed the written word as well and she and this young boy secretly met and he exposed her to different writers, but the Iranian culture forbid them to socialize. Her parents locked her in small spaces as a punishment and due to her questionable behavior, they forced her to undergo a virginity test.   At sixteen years old her father orchestrated an arranged marriage and the relationship suffered due to unsurmountable challenges.  Forugh became a teenage mother, began a clandestine romantic relationship with a powerful man in the publishing business, ran away from her stifling marriage and toward freedom and self fulfillment.

Forugh’s passion was to write, and when her provocative, expressive poetry was published, scandalous and smart written words by a woman… it caused a huge uproar.  Her marriage had been damaged beyond repair, her parental rights were impacted, her love affair was not all she had hoped it would be, but her quest for independence and creative freedom remained her priority as she changed the world of poetry in Iran and became an icon for feminism.

The title, Song of a Captive Bird, refers to Forugh; her poetry is her song and she endures feelings of being trapped by society and the rules preventing women to express themselves, as well as her marriage, relationship with her parents and her lovers, during the 1970s political resistance leading up to the revolution.  But in some ways all the characters are like captive birds, trying to conform to societal rules in a suppressed society and being challenged by each other, yet also finding comfort in the confines of what is acceptable.  Forugh gave up her marriage and family to find success as a poet, because in Iran she could not have it all.

I loved this book along with all the others in my book group.  Forugh was a strong, feisty woman living in the 1970s in Iran who was determined to share her creativity  with the world, despite the backlash and outrage her poetry stirred up.  Although throughout her short life she she didn’t conform to rules for females, cooking and motherhood were not her strong suits, she endured some horrible psychological and physical tortures, suffered unbearable heartbreaks, and many aspects of her life seemed like colossal failures, Forugh persevered and set the bar high when it came to freedom of expression, independence and rights for women.

This book is historical fiction based on the incredible poetry and varied life experiences of controversial poet Forugh Farrokhzad whose life tragically ended at age 32.  Author Jasmin Darznik draws you in from the very beginning and consistently shocks and amazes you with details of this extraordinary woman’s life, giving you incentive to do some googling!  Fantastic debut novel!

 

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Jasmin Darznik is the author of the debut novel Song of a Captive Bird, a fictional account of Iran’s trailblazing woman poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, as well as the New York Times bestseller The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life. Her books have been published or are forthcoming in sixteen countries.

Jasmin received her MFA from Bennington College and PhD in English from Princeton. She is a professor of English and creative writing at California College of the Arts and is now at work on a novel set in 1920s San Francisco.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

My Review:

In An American Marriage, circumstances put loyalty to the test.  After just a year of marriage, Celestial and Roy find themselves in an undesirable situation and Roy is sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. How does a new relationship endure such a setback? During Roy’s incarceration, the couple grows apart; they exchange letters about their feelings and family, but is it enough to keep them together?  Ultimately Celestial’s prison visits dwindle to nothing and Celestial turns to her old friend Andre for support.  Roy is continually hopeful he and his wife will pick up where they left off when he is released but is naive when it comes to her true feelings.

This uniquely written character driven novel let’s us in on the struggles of an incarcerated man, an independent woman and their marriage during a 12 year sentence.  Through the exchange of letters we learn of their past, their families and their desires, yet their communications are cause for misunderstandings.  Celestial’s family hires a lawyer to fight for justice and after a long time working on the case and five years served, Roy is set free.  He hopes to return to his previous live, but time has moved on and even though Celestial has stood by him in his innocence, she has mixed feelings about his release as she has changed direction in her personal life.

I enjoyed this book although the consensus of my bookclub was that even though it was well written and worthwhile to read, the characters were not likable.  Celestial and Roy’s choices and behaviors are fodder for good discussion:  Should she visit Roy in jail?  Divorce Roy?  Should Roy give Celestial permission to leave him?  Should he act upon his jealousy?  Are they clear with each other about their desires regarding a family?  Did their role models in life effect the way they behave and think?

Race and the justice system are undercurrent themes in this story of love, marriage, commitment and the pursuit of the American Dream, and I recommend it, especially for book groups.

Goodreads summary

Tayari Jones

About the Author:

Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and An American Marriage (Algonquin Books, February 2018). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, The New York Times, and Callaloo. A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, she has also been a recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship and Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship. Silver Sparrow was named a #1 Indie Next Pick by booksellers in 2011, and the NEA added it to its Big Read Library of classics in 2016. Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is currently an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University.

The Lost Family by Jenna Blum

The Lost Family by Jenna Blum

My Review:

The Lost Family is a beautifully written novel by Jenna Blum, author of the bestseller, Those Who Save Us.  The story begins in 1965 Manhattan.  World War II is over but the haunting memories are omnipresent for Peter Rashkin.  He survived Auschwitz but tragically lost his beloved wife and twin daughters, and Peter is  trying to start a new life for himself.  His extended family, the few that are still alive, have encouraged him to meet a nice Jewish girl and get on with life.  He owns and runs a restaurant called Masha, his lost wife’s namesake, and with a hole in his heart, emotional damage beyond repair, and physical scars on his body to prove it, Peter presses on.  He develops a relationship with June, a beautiful model twenty years younger, and although he cannot escape his torturous past, he hides his emotional and physical scars and gives what he can toward this new and exciting relationship.

Two decades later, Peter, his wife June and their daughter Elsbeth continue to struggle with Peter’s ghosts, the scars of war, and the legacy of the Holocaust and all the victims.  This emotional story touches upon many things, including the difficult restaurant business, high fashion modeling, the excitement and pitfalls of infidelity and the disturbing effects of eating disorders, but the basis of the emotional grief and ongoing challenges that engulfs the Rashkin family stems from personal loss, suffering and the terrors of World War II. Such a compassionate and engaging novel, don’t miss this great read.

Additional note:

Our past becomes part of who we are and we cannot separate out parts of ourselves.  Close family and younger generations may inherit the pain and suffering of oppressed and tortured relatives and Peter Rashkin’s family is no exception. Here is an article that talks more about this…CNN report discusses the possibility.

Goodreads Summary

Jenna Blum

About the Author:

New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels THOSE WHO SAVE US (Harcourt, 2004) and THE STORMCHASERS (Dutton, May 2010) and the novella “The Lucky One” in GRAND CENTRAL (Berkeley/Penguin, July 2014). One of Oprah’s Top 30 Women Writers. Novel THE LOST FAMILY was released from Harper Collins JUNE 5, 2018!

A Marriage in Dog Years by Nancy Balbirer

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My Review: 

A Marriage in Dog Years author, Nancy Balbirer takes us with her on the rocky journey of life as we see her joy filled marriage filled with hopes and dreams blossom then fizzle, at the same time her beloved, terminally ill beagle, Ira struggles to defy the odds and live another day.  From LA to NYC, single to married with a child, from puppy to old dog, and dreams of second chances, so much of life’s ups and downs happen and Nancy keeps you laughing through your tears.

A Marriage in Dog Years is a touching true story is told with honesty and humor, stirring up so many different feelings including love, anger, forgiveness and hope, well written in the author’s unique voice. Balbirer’s story is reminiscent to Sarah Jessica Parker’s hit show, Divorce on HBO – the good, the bad and the ugly truth about the slow death of a marriage, a complex relationship crumbling with regrets and infused with hope for peace and a bright future, with the added bonus of actual puppy love – unconditional and unwavering mutual support and devotion in man’s/woman’s best friend. If you love love, and if you love your pet, this emotional ride is for you!

As Seen on Goodreads:

When Nancy Balbirer learns her beloved eleven-year-old beagle has kidney failure, she’s devastated. She and her husband had gotten Ira as a puppy—a wedding gift to each other, and their first foray into “parenthood.” Now, her dog is terminal, her marriage is on life support, and Nancy is desperate to save them both (whether they want it or not). In a single year, she loses her two best friends, but Nancy’s life is about to take yet another unexpected turn.

With humor and heart, Nancy Balbirer shares her story of relationships, loss, and canine friendship in this illuminating memoir about the lengths people will go to keep love alive…and the power of finally letting go.

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About the Author:

Nancy Balbirer is a writer and performer of stage and screen. She is the author of “Take Your Shirt Off and Cry.” She lives in Los Angeles with her family.