The Social Ladder and Sorority Life in "Rush", by Lisa Patton - Book Review

When I saw Rush in the window of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, I was anxious to read it. The cover art popped (yes, it’s important) and I was curious to see how the experience of sorority rush is portrayed in current times. Surprisingly, or maybe not, it does not seem to have changed much in the thirty years since I went through it. While this book is in large part about rush, it delves into weightier topics such as generational racism and the inequities in pay and benefits to people of color.

Set in Oxford at Ole Miss, the story is told through the eyes of three main characters: Miss Pearl, the beloved African American house keeper in the fictional Alpha Delta Omega sorority; Cali, an un-“pedigreed” freshman from a small blue color Mississippi town; and, Wilda, Alpha Delt/Ole Miss alum and mom to another incoming freshman, Ellie. No good tale can be told without a villain and Patton’s Lilith Whitmore, in her powder blue rompers and matching David Yurman jewelry, rivals Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Not far behind her in wicked intent is her aptly Southern named daughter, Annie Laurie, who rises at 6am to do her hair and makeup before 9am class.

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Three Mini Book Reviews of Authors Apekina, Harris, and Crosley

Here are reviews for three books published last year to catch up on before a busy 2019 year of reading.

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, Novel by Katya Apekina

Author Katya Apekina has written an unusual book that spans years and complex characters. It centers on the relationship of two sisters, their mentally ill mother, and distant, self-absorbed father. 

After Edie finds her mother, Marianne, hanging from a rafter, Marianne is put in a hospital to rehabilitate. Edie and her sister, Mae are sent from their home outside New Orleans to live with their estranged father in New York. With differing feelings on the matter, Mae and Edie are quite close, yet the presence of Daniel, their father, opens the door to a history they were not prepared to face. Edie, reluctant and loyal to Marianne wants to return home to resume their old life. Mae, alarmingly similar to Marianne, wants to remain in New York and connect with Daniel. And things get a bit weird.

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Murderous London in "Death in the Air", by Kate Winkler Dawson - Book Review

Death in the Air was an unexpected find at last year’s BookExpo that I finally got around to reading. The subtitle is what got me - “The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City”. I wondered how author Kate Winkler Dawson would weave together these two stories of serial killer, John Reginald Christie and the four day smog that killed thousands. The story comes together in Parliament of all places - competing priorities and differing political agendas. Death in the Air is an interesting history lesson of murder that was never completely resolved.

It’s a 1952 London winter. Fog is a common occurrence in London, as we know. Post war England is financially struggling, they are in rebuilding mode, and industry is pumping out toxic fumes along with production. Coal is the primary source of energy, with two kinds in circulation - a “higher quality” and expensive black coal; and nutty slack, a cheaper, more toxic heat source that the working class use to fill their fireplaces. As a fog descends upon the city on December 4th, factories continue to operate and people go to work. During this time, it’s reported that you would hardly be able to see your hand in front of you, driving is impossible, criminals have their way, and the soot is everywhere, clinging to hair and clothing, being ingested into lungs. After five days of the smoke and fog thousands die from the poisonous gases. It’s not until a year later a report is released stating 4,000 people died due to the smog. And it’s some 50 years later, when the true, staggering number is released - over 12,000 people dead due to the smog.  

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"Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine", by Gail Honeyman - Book Review

Oh Eleanor, you’re completely wonderful! You will go down on my list of favorite main characters.

Eleanor, a single thirty-year old living in Glasgow, has worked the same job since she was 21. She is a woman of routine. She goes to work, 9-5, five days a week and on Friday after work gets take home pizza and enough vodka to keep her not too drunk/not too sober to make it to Monday morning when she starts the whole process all over again.

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An Unexpected Roller Coaster in "The Wife Between Us", by Greer Hendricks - Book Review

“I thought marrying Richard would erase my concerns. But my old anxieties simply yielded to new ones.”

What may initially seem like salvation could become your prison.

The Wife Between Us is seemingly told from the perspectives of two women involved with the same man. But the twists and turns in this book will keep you off balance and when you’re convinced you know what’s what, you’re thrown for another loop.

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"Between Breaths", A Story of Addiction and Recovery, by Elizabeth Vargas - Book Review

Her fantasy: “Sipping a golden elixir from a beautiful piece of stemware while a steady amber glow settles over your world.”

Her reality: “Staring in the bathroom mirror at the miserable woman in the glass, gulping down her wine from a plastic cup.”

Elizabeth Vargas was gripped by the illusion of many alcoholics that she could figure out a way to drink like a normal person despite clear, consistent evidence to the contrary. Eventually, finally, she realized she could not manage alcohol as a part of her existence. With it, her life was completely unmanageable. Without it, maybe she had a fighting chance.

Vargas was a game changer in the news world, becoming the second female anchor (Connie Chung was the first) of a network world nightly news program. She reported on the ground from the Iraq war, covered both Amanda Knox trials in Italy, reported on the Elian Gonzalez controversy and interviewed President Bush. She married successful singer-song writer, Marc Cohn, and they had two lovely boys together.

From outside looking in, she had it all. But Vargas speaks of her sometimes paralyzing anxiety in great detail. Starting early in her life, panic attacks gripped her and continued, even during her most successful and visible days as a leading woman in the news. Initially, she found that a glass of wine or two made her high stress life just a little more tolerable. Until it wasn’t just a glass or two but large quantities that she went to great pains to try and hide from those close to her.  

Vargas writes with sophistication and grace about her drinking history but her stories are no different than those of alcoholics with less education, stature, success and wealth. It took repeated rehab stays, destroying her family, and self-induced, life threatening experiences before she could come to terms with the fact that she was not “terminally unique”: neither in her drinking habits nor in her internal demons.

While she’s sometimes hard to relate to because of her success and notoriety, when she opens up about her inability to control her drinking and the roads it led her down, she’s just another drunk telling a story.

Her beauty, class and grace in looks and storytelling stand as a stark reminder that alcoholism is indiscriminate in its victims and that you don’t ever actually know what it is going on in someone’s life unless they tell you. Vargas didn’t have to tell this story, but she did so in order to share her experience, strength and hope (an AA mantra) with others.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

A Qualified Win for "Unqualified", by Anna Faris - Book Review

I’ve always envisioned that Anna Faris– Anna pronounced like “Donna” not like “Manna” – was sweet and gracious. Her book confirms as much. She adores her still happily married parents and credits them with her success, stating repeatedly that their encouragement to pursue the acting gig was what kept her at it. What I didn’t expect was her edginess and guile which, honestly, just made her more likable. I felt like I was sharing a drink with her as she regaled me with stories.

Unqualified
By Anna Faris

Though her book name and mantra is that she’s unqualified to give advice, that is exactly what she does. While she doesn’t have letters behind her name, what she does have is compassion and strong feelings about important topics. But her soft side coexists comfortably with her feminist side. Not at all afraid to call men out on crappy behavior, she’s similarly happy to admit that she loved it when her then husband would send her a huge flower arrangement before every taping of her tv show, “Mom.”

She discusses a broad range of topics including the following: losing her virginity, how terrible she was at dating, managing Hollywood stardom, and how she’s not really a comedic actress. She also has lots to say about love: when it’s right, when it isn’t, whether you should move to be with a guy (who isn’t your husband), the “wedding hoopla”, how to deal with a breakup, and how to make your man into the person you want him to be (you gotta read it to realize she gives solid advice on this one and it’s not about control).

To further demonstrate her likability, she had her soon to be ex-husband, Chris Pratt, write the foreword to the book after they had agreed to divorce. Between that and her words of love to him in her acknowledgements, I finished the book in tears. How can two people who clearly have so much love and respect for one another not have lasted? Well, because they’re people and being famous doesn’t make them any more or less likely to stay together. But, they are clearly good people which makes this book by yet another actress worth a turn.

This is an easy, quick read from a vibrant, caring, and funny woman.

Published:  2017
Publisher:  Dutton

Elizabeth's rating: 3.5 stars

The Travails of Friendship in "The Animators", by Kayla Rae Whitaker - Book Review

Short haired, loud mouthed lesbian Mel Vaught; weight conscious, big chested, introverted Sharon Kisses. Tentative friends early on in college, fierce duo upon graduation and after. Teaming up as animators, they turn what they love to do into full-time work. As their first major endeavor, they make a full-length feature animated film about Mel’s life to much acclaim. That acclaim sets them off and running both professionally and in their personal lives, sometimes in parallel lines; sometimes in almost opposite directions.

Major life events happen to these women in the pages of this story and, with each one, you think it’s the climax. It’s not. But this isn’t a criticism, more of a warning. This book is chock full of exhilarating highs, bone crushing lows, and sizzling emotion from deeply developed characters. The underpinning of the entire tale hinges on the personalities and evolution of characters Mel and Sharon, and Whitaker's masterful use of dialogue in such a unique style throughout the book aids in its character development.

The Animators: A Novel
By Kayla Rae Whitaker

Sharon is the hero on the journey here, and she’s forced to learn much about herself, her relationship with Mel, and how to be her own person. This book dives into friendships as life changing relationships. Ones that can be as significant, if not more, than spousal or familial ties and how they can be just as impactful and destructive if left unchecked.   

Whitaker writes in great detail about the art and business of animation, a topic about which I previously knew nothing. If Whitaker isn’t professionally trained as an animator, she’s certainly done her research. The book is an interesting and insightful look into a very nuanced world and, for me, a true education into new material.

In the first few pages of the book, I was hooked. On Mel and Sharon as people, on their travails together and apart, on their work life, on their stories, real and imagined. Gripping and vivid, The Animators struck major chords.  

Published: 2017
Publisher: Random House

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

Number One Eater Succeeds in "Sourdough", by Robin Sloan - Book Review

Sourdough is Robin Sloan’s second novel, but my first read of his. Before finishing this one, I’d already ordered his first, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Having just returned from my first trip to San Francisco, I was immediately charmed by the setting of Sourdough which is strictly in the Bay Area.

Lois, the main character, is a geeky computer type who works for a robotics company that intends to revolutionize commerce in a way that will likely make humans obsolete. Lois is well paid and unfulfilled. Her apartment is sparse, like her life, until she finds the best take-out food ever. Two brothers deliver to her a daily elixir of dishes with sourdough to die for. The brothers nickname her their “Number One Eater.” She relishes the title.

Then, as quickly as they came into her life, the brothers close up shop and leave the country because of immigration issues. In honor of her best customer status, they pass along their mysterious sourdough “starter” for safe keeping. Unbeknownst to me prior to reading this book, sourdough “starters,” a type of yeast different from the standard used in, say, regular white bread, can be fed, grown and reused for years and years. Lois’ newly inherited starter has a mysterious and not entirely pure history, and, as Lois comes to learn, a dark side.

Lois makes her first loaves of sourdough in her sterile kitchen but realizes for both the sake of quality and quantity, she’ll need something bigger. She constructs a non-code compliant brick oven in her backyard and buys her landlord’s silence through the promise of regular bread delivery. Deciding to expand her bread business, she signs on to be part of the enigmatic Marrow Fair, a new market that hopes to be the underground competitor to the Ferry Market, a long-established mecca of commerce right on the Bay. Intrigue ensues.

Reminiscent of Tom Robbins, Sloan is a master of language and turning phrases. Example: “My face burned hot, but through force of will, I cooled my gaze to absolute zero kelvin.” Similarly, he can make a fantastical story believable. He also takes the complex and reduces it to basic. In the end, Lois finds the answers she’s looking for through simplifying everything: robotic coding, bread making, relationships.

This is a delightful reprieve if you’re weary from the world at large. It reads quick and delivers wit and quirk with a touch of sentimentality. I look forward to reading Sloan’s other published novel and the ones that will hopefully ensue.

Published:  2017
Publisher: MCD

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

Facing Cancer From a Surprising Source: "All You Could Ask For", by Mike Greenberg - Book Review

Mike Greenberg, most commonly known as Greenie and the co-host of ESPN’s Mike & Mike, writes a novel from the perspective of three women. Huh? I was immediately skeptical. As metrosexual and into clothes shopping as Greenie is, at heart, he’s a sports nerd and I doubted he’d be able to convincingly shift into a women’s voice without sounding insincere. I was wrong.

Written as a tribute to his dear friend Heidi who lost her battle with breast cancer, Greenberg’s All You Could Ask For centers around three women, Brooke, Samantha and Katherine, who begin the story completely unconnected to one another. By the end, they have forged friendships through their shared experience that will bind them together for the rest of their lives.

While Greenberg occasionally drops in a silly cliché (no woman ever seriously says a guy makes her quiver), his insight into the female psyche is quite prophetic. He writes about broken hearts, loneliness, motherhood, and the depths of female friendship in ways that have you forgetting he’s a male author as you read.

He writes a touching story about a touchy topic. Cancer hits people where it finds them, and not all cancer sufferers handle their diagnoses in the same way. Even as a reader, I found myself judging certain characters’ reactions to their brushes with cancer but Greenie does this on purpose, I think. He does it to hammer home the idea that it is up to every person, in this book, every woman, to decide how and what to do with her body. Her body, her choice. In that vein, Greenberg speaks to a broader issue than cancer, whether he means to or not.

All You Could Ask For is a tearjerker, but in a mostly upbeat way. While cancer is the underlying common thread, Greenberg’s focus is the bonds that can be forged between women who truly need, love, and respect one another and how unassailable those bonds are once in place.

Kudos to Greenie for having the courage to write this book, doing it so well, and so beautifully honoring the life of his friend, Heidi. On top of his meaningful story, he contributed all of his profits from the book to The V Foundation for Cancer Research to combat breast cancer.

Published: 2013
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks

Elizabeth's rating: 3 ½