Improvement by Joan Silber

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My Review:

Connecting 1970s Turkey and New York today, 72 year old author Joan Silber, winner of the 2018 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction weaves a tapestry of interpersonal connections and shows how relationships bind us together and decisions have widespread impact across countries and over time in her latest novel, Improvement.

Reyna is a single mother living in Harlem and standing by her not so perfect boyfriend, Boyd, as she visits him during his 3 month incarceration at Riker’s. Her Aunt Kiki lives in the Village after spending some time in Turkey and traveling the world in her younger days.  Kiki worries about Reyna and her young son Oliver and is unaware of the illegal activities Boyd, Reyna and their friends are involved with.  When Reyna is asked to drive the car in a cigarette smuggling heist, she makes a crucial decision to remover herself from the dangerous antics and that sets off a series of events with a ripple effect that pervades countries and time, affecting people they know and strangers alike.

The book was written in three parts; a novel but with a feel of linked stories; parts 1 and 3 told in first person, and the middle was narrative necessary to fill in all the holes with description and stories of the past, colorfully adding to the context and connecting further the characters and situations.  Joan Silber expertly intertwines the complexities of people’s lives as they each make decisions to try and improve their existence.

Very enjoyable read.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Joan Silber is the author of six previous works of fiction. Among many awards and honors, she has won a PEN/Hemingway Award and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

 

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My Review:

I missed this stunner from 2013 and was thrilled to backtrack and read Anthony Marra’s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena set during wartime in Chechnya over the time span of 10 years.  Eight year old Havaa’s father is taken away in the night by the Russian army and her house is set on fire.   The family friend and neighbor, Akhmed, finds her hiding in the backyard with a suitcase she had prepared months before under her father’s advise and he leaves his ailing wife for the day while he brings the young girl to a nearby bombed out hospital for safety.  He puts Havaa in the care of the only remaining doctor, Sonia, who agrees to harbor the child, now a target of the Russian military, and he also volunteers to help out at the understaffed medical facility.

There are four pairs of characters that are intertwined in this story…the young child Havaa and her abducted father Dokka, neighbor Akhmed and his sick wife Ula, physician Sonia and her missing drug-addicted sister Natasha, Khasssam, Akhmed’s friend and scholar and his estranged informant son, Ramzan.  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena alternates time periods from 1994 – 2004 and the story tells what each of these characters endured during this time of war.  From sex trafficking and drug addition, to torture and mutilation, from births and deaths, to promises kept and secrets told, each and every part of this powerful story is a crucial piece of the puzzle and may warrant re-reading so nothing is missed.  The Russian names added to the complexity for me, but reviewing sections lead me to unforgettable revelations and made the book even more rich and colorful despite the bleak setting.

As we learn of the characters’ histories throughout the chapters, author Anthony Marra has them unleashing memories that provide us with incite and understanding, and binds them together to form the intricate mosaic of deep relationships.  These damaged people of Chechnya try to recover from their violent pasts as they search to find meaning in their experiences and purpose in the now. This is a most vivid storytelling of a profound and unforgettable story.  If you haven’t read it, you should.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

ANTHONY MARRA is the winner of a Whiting Award, Pushcart Prize, and the Narrative Prize. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a shortlist selection for the Flaherty-Dunnan first novel prize. In addition, his work has been anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.

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The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall

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My Review:

It is not often where I pick up a book that has everything I’m looking for at that moment and The Subways Girls by Susie Orman Schnall delivered.  I started out in my early 20s in NYC at an ad agency so this book was a real treat for me as I was immediately drawn in and wanting to read more.  The urge to google and learn something new is always a good sign when I am reading a book, and the Miss Subways ad campaign sparked my interest.  Well developed, relatable characters that had me rooting for them and invested in them so much to pull at my heart strings and cause me to shed some tears, two separate and equally intriguing stories that perfectly connect, and just enough information or a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to spur me made this a winner for me.

In her novel, Susie Orman Schnall explores some of the challenges women faced in the 1940s and some that still exist today.  In 1949 Charlotte wants to graduate college and work in advertising, yet the ad agencies only seems to have women working in the typing pool.  She has an opportunity to be in ad campaign that essentially is a beauty contest where the winner’s photo will be up in the subway cars, a lovely and successful boyfriend who wants to marry her and start a family, but her desire is to be educated and become a working woman, not a beauty queen or a wife and mother.  Her father demands she drop out of school, work at the family business and not participate in the Miss Subways contest.  After being rejected from all the jobs she applied to, feeling rebellious and going against her father’s wishes, and initially not being in favor of becoming an object of beauty, she decides to apply for Miss Subways anyway – with nothing to lose, she thinks it could help her father’s business by getting some publicity should she win.  Her supportive boyfriend stands by her, although some of his decisions reflect questionable judgement.  (No spoilers!)

Seventy years later, successful ad executive Olivia has to come up with an advertising idea for the MTA.  She has a complicated relationship with her boss, who has power over her financially and emotionally.  Her male coworker is not a fan of women and has no problem stealing her ideas and presenting them as his own.   Feeling despair, alone and her job on the line, Olivia has to make some decisions. Her strength and perseverance, despite the odds being against her, lead her to research the old Miss Subways campaign.   Through heartbreak, a new love and a surprising connection right next door, Olivia’s future begins to look bright.

Striking a balance for women is often challenging; a constant juggling between works and family….wanting it all.  Happiness is fluid and different things may be more important at different times.  I found myself rooting for both Charlotte and Olivia, a champion for the women, no matter what they wanted in order to be happy – the job, the beauty contest, the attention from the guy, the winning campaign…I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

To learn more about The Subway Girls read this fascinating Harper’s Bazaar article written by the author.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

I am the author of the novels THE SUBWAY GIRLS, THE BALANCE PROJECT, and ON GRACE. I grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. My writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, POPSUGAR, Writer’s Digest, and Glamour. In addition, I have spoken extensively on work-life balance and I’m the founder of The Balance Project interview series. I live in Purchase, NY, with my husband and our three sons. For more about me, please visit www.susieschnall.com or follow me at:

Instagram: @SusieOrmanSchnall
Facebook: SusieOrmanSchnall
Twitter: @SusieSchnall

 

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The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

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My Review:

The Weight Of Ink tells the story of Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi in London in the 1600s right before the plague.  At the same time we learn about Helen Watt, a close to retiring British historian who is working on translations of some 17th century documents signed by scribe “Aleph”.  Even though these women lived-in different centuries, both were strong and determined to pursue their interests and fight to be heard, and choosing a life to satisfy the mind and sacrifice the heart.

Ester is a product of the Portuguese Inquisition and although displaced with little family, what feels like home for her is her job a a scribe for the rabbi, where her love of learning is nourished.  She turns down marriage offers as she prefers to work for the rabbi in order to continue her scholarly pursuits.  She has an open mind and longs to converse with philosophers and educated men, and although it is not acceptable for women to engage in these types of discussion, she creates unorthodox opportunities to be heard.

Helen has a love of Jewish history and as she and her American graduate student assistant Aaron Levy investigate the many pages of letters written to and from the London based rabbi to determine the identity of the scribe, it is a race against time as Helen’s physical health is failing, she is approaching retirement, and another team of historians are working on the same project.

We also learn about Aaron Levy, the Jewish assistant, who is interested in a relationship with a girl who is living in Israel on a Kibbutz and is pushing him away.  And then there are Ian and Brigette Easton, the couple who live in the 17th century house where the documents were found.  This is a complex story; a mystery and rich with history and well developed characters.

Author Rachel Kadish provides extensive depth: Jewish theology and philosophy, interfaith relationships and lost love, 17th century history, the Portuguese inquisition, the plague and so much more…no skimping on research here, but for me a bit too wordy, complex and long.  The Weight of Ink is powerful, intricate and the well deserved winner of the National Jewish Book Award.  Although this is not an easy book, if you love historical fiction and Jewish history and set aside a big chunk of time to conquer it, you will be rewarded with the beauty of memorable storytelling.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

I often begin writing when something is bothering me. Years ago, I was thinking about Virginia Woolf’s question: what if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister?
Woolf’s answer: She died without writing a word.
What, I wondered, would it take for a woman of that era, with that kind of capacious intelligence, not to die without writing a word?
For one thing, she’d have to be a genius at breaking rules.
My novel The Weight of Ink reaches back in time to ask the question: what does it take for a woman not to be defeated when everything around her is telling her to sit down and mind her manners? I started writing with two characters in mind, both women who don’t mind their manners: a contemporary historian named Helen Watt and a seventeenth century Inquisition refugee named Ester Velasquez. It’s been a delight working on their story.
The Weight of Ink is my third novel, but I’ve also written two other novels and one novella, plus a few dozen essays and stories. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I put words to paper because it’s my way of metabolizing life. To paraphrase Henry James: I don’t really know what I think until I see what I say.
Thanks for your interest in books.

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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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

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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.

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Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman

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My Review:

I read the whole book in two sittings!  Psychological thrillers are supposed to grab you right away, pull you in, create situations where you make assumptions and then force you to second guess yourself…Author Catherine Steadman did just that in her fast moving debut novel Something in the Water.  (FYI she is also an actress from Downton Abbey and she narrated the audio book!)

Mark is an investment banker and Erin is a filmmaker in the midst of making a documentary about people in prison.  (The subjects of money and crime could be foreshadowing!!!) The handsome couple is honeymooning in exotic Bora Bora and they are very much in love.  While on a secluded scuba diving day trip they discover something in the crystal clear blue water.  They make a decision about what to do and so it begins!  That is all I can say!  Around ever corner the newlyweds have to decide how to proceed, and as they dig their grave (figuratively…and maybe even literally!) they battle their moral compass while their loyalty to each other is tested.  Greed, curiosity and BIG secrets make this latest Reese Witherspoon Book Club choice a fun summer read!

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Catherine Steadman is an actress and writer based in North London. She is known for her roles in Downton Abbey and Tutankhamun, starring alongside Sam Neill, as well as shows including Breathless, The Inbetweeners, The Tudors, and Fresh Meat.

In 2017 she will feature in political thriller Fearless and new BBC comedy Bucket. She also has appeared on stage in the West End including Oppenheimer for the RSC, for which she was nominated for a 2016 Laurence Olivier Award.

Something in the Water is her first novel.

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The Lost Family by Jenna Blum

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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

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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!

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A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

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My Review:

WOW! What a great book! I feel like I have a deep understanding of this beautiful, struggling family having experienced their lives from different perspectives through Fatima Farheen Mirza’s heartfelt and elegantly written debut. She is gifted in making you feel the characters’ emotions from their own viewpoint and from other perspectives, gradually revealing different aspects without retelling the story.

A Place For Us begins at Hadia’s wedding in California.  The family gathers to celebrate a marriage based on love, not an arranged marriage as you might expect, and Amar, Hadia’s younger brother who ran away three years earlier, has returned for the celebration.  We don’t know why he was gone and thus the story is told from the beginning.

With secrets of clandestine meetings with the opposite sex, drug use and lack of strong religious beliefs, to nontraditional marriages, family responsibilities and commitments, and educational options for women, Mirza tells a rich and engaging story of today.  We see how an Indian Muslim family might feel conflicted with the parent’s family traditions of faith from prior generations, and the current American culture they are accustomed to where their children have grown up and are a part of.

This wonderful Indian, Muslim American family in many ways is like any other family, lots of love, sibling rivalry and parental discipline, yet they follow strict religious rules and traditions which at times complicate their relationships with each other and others. Due to traditional expectations, each family member feels personal conflict as they strive for social acceptance, grapple with religious beliefs and search for individual happiness.  Trying to find their place in the family is compounded with trying to find their place in the outside world, and like any family that has their own rules and strong belief systems, there are challenges.  This incredibly moving story feels authentic and relevant in today’s society where it continues to be a difficult to look, act and dress differently and still fit in amongst a crowd. This family has so much love for each other but love doesn’t always come without pain and disappointment.  The family members often act and react toward each other based on assumptions, always wanting the best, but not always with the best results. I adored the characters as they go on their journeys to develop their identities, enjoyed the format with different points of view, and was absorbed by the compelling story of family and culture; so beautifully written and emotionally powerful…my favorite book of the year so far!

Note:  A Place For Us is the first book published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint SJP for Hogarth.  To read about my conversation with SJP click here.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Fatima Farheen Mirza was born in 1991 and raised in California. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship.

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The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

 

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My Review:

The Ensemble is a great summer read – a wonderful debut about four quartet musicians and their lives together from right out of school to adulthood – what they gave up and what they earned, the love they developed and the family they created. The Van Ness Quartet consists of Jana, first violinist and leader, Brit, the quiet, second violinist, Daniel the older cellist and playboy, and Henry the violist prodigy.  Author Aja Gabel skillfully links them together by their shared musical experiences, emotional connections and their intertwined lives.

Through musical and personal challenges, emotional and physical relationships and breakups, private and career successes and failures, this foursome grows into their own as individual musicians and human beings as well as a group, making beautiful music together that just gets richer with age.  These friends and music partners experience harmonious relationships along with plenty of friction, but they are committed to their craft and each other to live the lives of professional musicians…together.

This book gives us an inside look at what it is like to be a classical musician and play in a quartet for 20 years…a wonderful story – very enjoyable!

 

Goodreads Summary

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About the author:

Aja Gabel’s debut novel, The Ensemble, was published May 15, 2018 by Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House.

Aja’s short fiction can be found in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Glimmer Train, BOMB, and elsewhere. Her lyric essay, “The Sparrows in France,” appeared in Kenyon Review and earned her an honorable mention in Best American Essays 2015. She has taught fiction, non-fiction, and literature at the University of Virginia, the University of Houston, Sweet Briar College, and Pacific University, as well as at undergraduate creative writing conferences and community workshop organizations. She earned her BA at Wesleyan University, her MFA at the University of Virginia and has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston.

Aja has been the recipient of awards from Atlantic Monthly and Inprint, as well as fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she was a fellow in fiction 2012-2013.

She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Bear.

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