Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty presented me with a dilemma  — the age old struggle of plot versus characters.  Can you like one but not the other?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book opens in 1976, with this delightfully written description of Fern, Edgar and their three young children enjoying their summer house on Martha’s Vineyard:

“Summer fattened everybody up. The family buttered without reserve; pie seemed to be everywhere.  They awoke and slept and awoke in the summerhouse on the island, ate all their meals on the porch while the sun moved across their sky.  They look out at the saltwater cove and watched the sailboats skim and tack across the blue towards the windward beach, littered with the outgrown shells of horseshoe crabs.”

“The children were brown with white, white behinds and they wore anklets of poison ivy blisters.  For them the whole point of life was to be wet and dry eight times a day and never clean. There was always sand in the bed and none of them wanted it to end.”

However, at the end this holiday Fern and Edgar discover that their seemingly endless supply of inherited money has run out.

Fern comes from one of the oldest and richest families in Chicago.  Her parents are elegant, classy and self assured in their position.  Their historic house reflects the worn shabbiness of wealth.  Their clothes are old but so well made they last forever.  Even their roses reflect this attitude:

“Their rosebushes were so old that some of the branches were a big as ankles and when they bloomed they were just imperfect enough, as if someone had come out at dawn and carefully ruffled them.”

In contrast, Edgar’s family is new money and his mother Mary studies the old money types, attempts to mimic class — redecorating every year and buying only the most current clothes each season:

“If Edgar’s parents could have worn clothes sewn from money itself they would have.  Everything they had on was the most expensive version available.  Mary wore a silk shift [—-] a mink stole even thought it was summer and yellow heels that had been made for her very feet by an ancient Italian cobbler.”

Ms. Ausubel beautifully weaves this tale set in the 1960’s and 70’s and chocks it full of dark humor, bittersweet ironies, and a string of bizarre vignettes.  From Fern and Edgar’s indifferent parents and their lackluster childhoods – we begin to see that wealth – whether old or new – has consequences.

After Fern and Edgar get married they profess to embrace the 1960’s counter culture movement – trying desperately to eschew the wealth that follows them. But after three kids they have settled into enjoying the trappings of their privilege – sailboats, summer houses. When they learn that this accustomed wealth, always safely in the background, is gone — they both fall apart.

“Everything around her — the house, the furniture, the manner of life — was poised to evaporate.  She was a soft body trying to prepare herself for the unknown future.”

Fern and Edgar each experience what could be called an extensional crisis. Edgar takes an extended sailboat trip with his mistress, and Fern, learning of the affair, escapes on a cross country road trip with a stranger (a gentle giant of a man- no really, a giant!).  In one of the strangest plot twists ever, neither checks with the other and they each take off believing the other is staying home with the children. “Despicable people!” I sputtered out loud as I read these pages (What? Don’t you talk to your book’s characters?). 

Their respective journeys are told against the frightening tableau of their young confused children who are afraid of being sent to an orphanage, so pretend everything is normal.  The children forge meals from whatever they can find, get dressed, go to school, and play outside as always.  No one realizes they are alone. Finally, an astute teacher catches on, and both parents race home.  But that’s all I’ll tell you.

I found Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty* often dark, sometimes hilarious, but always captivating.  A wonderful treatise on the moneyed privileged and the pitfalls of wealth – both for those who have it and those who once did.

Ms. Ausubel can certainty write and has created way (way) out of the ordinary characters — characters who are shallow, brave, mean, immature, wise.  While I often despised the characters, they were real and leapt off the page, working their way into my brain.  I devoured this book and whenever I wasn’t reading it – I wanted to be.

 

*I keep wanting to call it Sons and Daughters of Good and Plenty.  

 

An advanced readers copy was provided by Riverhead books, an imprint of Penguin Random House

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Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

For a long time, I’ve had Orphan Train recommended (actually thrust upon me) by fellow readers, various bookstore customers, and, yes, even my Mom ~~ all opinions I value…but for some reason I never got around to reading it.

After my last two magical-mystical-tour reads, I was ready for some reality. I unearthed my long ignored copy of this popular novel and dove right in.

In case you’re one of the few (like me) who haven’t read this historical novel, I’ll give it a proper Book Barmy review.

It’s 2011 Maine and 17-year old Molly, a Penobscot Indian, has been sent from one foster home to another, from school to school, and has been in and out of trouble.  Her most recent crime?  Stealing a beat up paperback copy of  Jane Eyre from the library. 

(Sigh, Jane Eyre really?  I’m already on her side, mentally figuring out the cost of a multiple times read mass market paperback to an entire library system, versus the cost of juvie –)

Molly is facing juvenile detention, when her boyfriend, Jack, offers up a solution.  His mother, Terry, is a housekeeper for a 91-year old woman, who wants to clear out an attic of memorabilia.   Jack suggests Molly do community service hours by helping Vivian clean the attic.

Together they form a prickly friendship and as they go through the boxes and mementos, the book switches narratives to 1929, when Vivian was nine-year old Niamh Power.

Her family emigrated from Ireland to the tenements of New York. Her father was a drunk and her mother depressed (although she taught Niamh excellent sewing skills). With both parents incapable, Niamh takes care of her siblings, especially her baby sister, Maise. 

Then a horrible fire leaves Niamh an orphan, and she is herded onto an orphan train.  These trains were arranged to take orphans from areas such as the New York tenements and give them to anyone who wanted a child. These children were left with people in the hopes that they would be given a good life. Some were, but many were nothing more than indentured slaves on remote and hardscrabble farms.

The author has created an unforgettable character in Niamh, who brings this little known part of our history alive.  As an old woman, she helps the young Molly see that she is not the only orphan to suffer:

“I learned long ago that loss is not only probable but inevitable. I know what it means to lose everything, to let go of one life and find another. And now I feel, with a strange, deep certainty, that it must be my lot in life to be taught that lesson over and over again.”

Ms. Baker Kline did an extraordinary amount of research, and as a result, the story comes alive with rich details and colorful descriptions. I knew nothing about this part of history — orphan trains — and it’s as interesting and heartbreaking as it gets.

Orphan Train is a powerful read, both historically and emotionally.

I now join the legions who highly recommend this book. 


Now I’m a bit miffed at myself for waiting so long…

 

 

 

 

N.B.   Ms. Baker Kline has new book — A Piece of the World about Christina Olson, the real life model in Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World. 

 

I’ll be reading this very soon. 

No waiting this time.

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The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

I was recently surprised to enjoy THIS book about reincarnation.  Well, as if on a mission from another universe, another unusual book entered my orbit.

Really liking the cover, I opened this book on my Kindle, and before I knew it, I had read two chapters.

Magic, fantasy – not usually my cup of tea (true confession time, I only made through the first Harry Potter book), but I kept reading well into the night and finished The House at the End of Hope Street the very next evening. 

When Alba, an extraordinarily smart woman experiences what she believes is a career-ending event, she wanders the streets with no idea what should happen next. That’s when a large Victorian house pops up out of nowhere, covered in fragrant wisteria and with a sense calm that emanates from within.

Peggy, the caretaker of the house, appears to expect Alba. And oh how the house welcomes her.  In this house, the floors are soft under foot, the walls breathe and hug you, and one sees colors when words are spoken.  Important notes flutter down from the ceilings for the intended recipient,  and the framed portraits of past residents of the house, such as Agatha Christie, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf chat away, giving advice and counsel.

Turns out this magical house has been rescuing extraordinary women, for 200 years.  And each woman, including Alba, have 99 nights to stay in the house and turn their lives around.

“If you stay I can promise you this. This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need. And the event that brought you here, the thing you think is the worst thing that’s ever happened? When you leave, you’ll realize it was the very best thing of all.”

Peggy, the 80+ caretaker of this magical house, is my favorite character.  She lives in her own private tower of the house, entertains a mysterious lover every Sunday, eats cake for breakfast, and has an invisible cat named Mog.

We also learn the stories of Carmen and Greer, the other residents of the house, who also arrived heartbroken, hopeless, not knowing what to do:

“[each woman] must be allowed to feel her grief, must dive headlong into despair, before she can emerge again, her spirit richer and deeper than before”

One would think that Ms. Van Praag would have trouble creating believable characters in and among all this hocus pocus magic but each character is rendered with realistic layers of character flaws and redeeming talents.  

But my favorite part of this book was the rooms that magically fill with objects to suit the occupant.   Greer loves clothes so her room is filled with an amazing wardrobe. Alba loves books so her room is filled with the books the house thinks she should read.  What’s not to like about that fantasy?

I felt quite buoyed upon finishing this book, believing the magic — that problems can be surmounted, that heartbreak can be lessened, and troubles put in their proper place.

Magic sure, but it’s Magically Delicious

A digital advanced readers copy was provided by Penguin Books via Netgalley.

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The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katrina Bivald

 

I have enjoyed many books about reading, bookshops and book lovers.  So when The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was compared to The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry — I had high hopes.

In this novel Sara, a Swedish woman, comes to Broken Wheel, Iowa to visit her pen pal and fellow book lover, Amy.  But when she arrives in this rundown small town she finds that her elderly friend recently died and left instructions for Sara to stay in her house as long as she wants.   Sara, a devoted bookworm tries to hide herself in the books from Amy’s library but soon gets drawn into the town and the lives of its local inhabitants  — a motley crew of misfits.  These normally insular Iowans gradually warm up to Sara and make her a part of their town. She opens a bookshop and recommends the perfect reads for her new friends and neighbors. Much of the story is about the effect Sara and her reading recommendations have on the inhabitants of Broken Wheel.

The book is interspersed with the past correspondence between Amy and Sara and I really wanted these letters to tell more about their relationship and shared love of reading.  But, sadly the letters are stilted and reveal little about either Amy or Sara.

The small saving grace in The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is Sara’s love for books  — I had to smile, as Sara explains the difference between the smell of a paperback and that of a hardback — a true book lover.

I also nodded in recognition at this description of Sara’s school experience:

 “Others might have found themselves stuck in a tired, old high school in Haninge, but she had been a geisha in Japan, walked along with China’s last empress through the claustrophobic, closed off rooms of the Forbidden City, grown up with Anne and the others in Green Gables, gone through her fair share of murder, and loved and lost over and over again.”

This is a sweet but predictable (and often trite) story of friendship, small-town America, and the love of reading and books. It tries to be life affirming, but instead, wanders into the clichéd.

Reading The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was an enjoyable, if  bland, experience.

I just wished it could have been better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A digital advanced readers copy was provided by Sourcebooks Landmark via Netgalley.

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Blind Date

I just had a blind date with a book.

Plucked at random from my stack of unread advanced readers copies, I opened The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin knowing very little, apart from this pre-publication blurb:

What happens to us after we die? What happens before we are born? At once a riveting mystery and a testament to the profound connection between a child and parent, The Forgetting Time will lead you to reevaluate everything you believe…

The plot centers around the theory that some people have lived previous lives which they remember as small children but start to forget as they get older.

Four-year-old Noah has fear of water and refuses to take a bath or even wash his hands, he also suffers from nightmares and constantly asks his mom to take him ‘home’ and to see his ‘other mom’.

“Not now Noah? I see. It happened in another time.”   

                       “Yes, when I was big.”

Janie, Noah’s mom, is shaken and confounded by her son’s behavior. This is his home and she is his mom.  Noah knows about things he has never been exposed to – the Harry Potter books, lizards, and how to score a baseball game. Is Noah the reincarnation of another boy who died?  Janie is skeptical but enlists the help of a Dr. Anderson, who has researched and documented this phenomenon.   Together they begin a journey that rattles not only their beliefs about Noah’s situation, but also their own lives. 

Really Book Barmy? Reincarnation? No, not for me, you’re thinking.  I thought the very same thing, but I must tell you, by the end of the second chapter, I was immediately smitten with The Forgetting Time

This book has multiple layers.  It’s a thought-provoking look into reincarnation. But it’s also a murder mystery. There is much about hurt, fear, aging, and death.  But mostly, The Forgetting Time is about the connections humans have with each other. It shouldn’t all work together — but it does – and does so very well.

With her beautiful prose, Ms. Guskin chases away any doubts about reincarnation, and creates a world where we believe in the real possibility that there is life beyond the one, singular one we all have before us.

“You only live once. But was it true? That was the problem, wasn’t it? She had never thought about it in any deep way. She hadn’t had the time or inclination to speculate about other lives: this one was hard enough to manage.”

Interspersed throughout the book are fascinating case studies of other children with inexplicable memories of previous lives.  And so the author steadily draws the reader into reality of what is happening to Noah and the possibility of a life reborn.

There is much to think about when reading this novel, lives well (or not so well) lived, death, loss, hope — and the constantly changing human experience.

“…[Dr. Anderson] thought of Heraclitus: a man cannot step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.”

When evaluating this blind date, I have never read anything quite like The Forgetting Time – I found it both thought provoking and unforgettable.  And while I still don’t know how much I believe in reincarnation — this book left me wanting to believe.

An advanced readers copy was provided by Flatiron Books

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Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning

I hope you will forgive me, but I will quote a professional review which captures perfectly, the book I just finished — Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning.

“A brilliant exploration of what it meant to be a slave owner in antebellum Virginia where farming depended on slaves, and their presence in the household gave them an intimacy with family members that could be both comforting and threatening. This story of Thomas Jefferson’s devoted daughter, the indomitable Martha Jefferson Randolph, helps us understand all the complexities and contradictions endured by Martha and her family as they struggle with their consciences and responsibilities toward their families, their plantations, and the people who work for them. Highly recommended as an engrossing tale of a strong woman in tumultuous times, with deftly interwoven historical details that make her trials all the more authentic.”
— Library Journal

Historical fiction fascinates me, but only when the author doesn’t stray too far from actual events.  Ms. Gunning actually based this historical novel on actual correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and his eldest daughter Martha. The author says:

As soon as I came across a letter the fourteen year-old Martha Jefferson wrote: “I wish with all my soul that the poor Negroes were all freed . . .” I was hooked.  I read all of Martha’s letters to her father and his to her.

The book follows Martha Jefferson Reynolds, her revered father Thomas Jefferson, and their families as they live their lives and make history at Monticello during the late 1700’s to early 1800’s.

Martha adores her father and wishes nothing more than to work with him to build and manage the Monticello plantation.  But her relationship with her father is complicated not only by the entire issue of slaves, but the intimacy between her father the coddled slave, Sally Hemings.

While this strained relationship with her father is crucial to her life, the majority of the book is devoted to her difficult marriage. Martha marries Tom Randolph and over the years, gives birth to 12 (yes 12!) children.  Martha and Tom struggle.  Tom is often depressed and their financial failures and dependence on Thomas Jefferson further threatens their marriage.

(One reviewer pointed out that Thomas Mann Randolph is portrayed unfairly as a weak, paranoid alcoholic who lived as a parasite on the goodwill of Thomas Jefferson. Despite the fact he served in both houses of the Virginia Assembly, became a Congressman and then Governor of Virginia.)

Monticello plays a wonderful backdrop in this novel.  Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, we see how the gardens were treasured.  How Jefferson experimented with crops and imported plant seeds. Descriptions of the clothing, home furnishings, and architectural details of Monticello allows the reader to see it as a true home where Jefferson escaped his political worries and thrived.

But we can’t escape the fact that Monticello was a working plantation with slaves.  And, even though Thomas Jefferson spoke out against the institution of slavery, at the same time he owned slaves of his own – and fathered numerous children with one of the them (Sally Hemings).  

Monticello (the book) gives insight into this Jeffersonian paradox, and what is today, totally incomprehensible.  We see plantation life in all its light and darkness, not to mention the usually caring, but sometimes cruel human interaction of slave and master.

Through Martha’s eyes we see Thomas Jefferson as a beloved father, an architect of our constitution, a renaissance man, and an intellectual.  But most importantly, we also see him as just a man, like any other man in any other time period — struggling with the political tsunamis and conflicting morals of his time.

I was thoroughly lost in the pages of  Monticello and had trouble putting it down.  When I did have to stop reading, (you know meals, sleep, showering, those pesky interruptions) it took me a bit to clear my mind and return to current day life.

Monticello is one of my favorite historic sights and you must visit, but in the meantime you can see Jefferson’s library HERE.  (It’s swoon-worthy)

 

N.B.  The day after I finished this book, I purchased this other novel about Martha Jefferson.  It was my birthday, I’d hurt my back and I didn’t need any more excuses — and so it goes.  Another Jefferson read awaits me.

 

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