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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New York of "The Dakota Winters", by Tom Barbash is Highly Thoughtful and Readable - Book Review

Invoking so much of factual 1979 New York, I had to look twice to ensure I was reading a work of fiction. Indeed, author Tom Barbash used real events of that year as a backdrop for his novel, The Dakota Winters. We meet the Winters family through the voice of 23-year old Anton whom returns early from a Peace Corps assignment in Africa, having contracted malaria. Anton arrives in time to help his father Buddy Winters, America’s premier and loved talk show host, recover his career from walking off the set during a monologue and disappearing for months.

After much self-reflection, Buddy makes ready for his comeback and needs his son’s support to do so. With maturity and poise beyond his years, Anton traverses his father’s fragile emotions, regaining the trust of those in the business whom felt betrayed by Buddy’s walk off, his mother and siblings trepidation about his father’s readiness for return to t.v., and his own growth as an adult and professional. All of this takes place with his home as the anchor - The Dakota - a real building in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and home to New York’s wealthy, including the Winters, restaurant magnates, authors, artists, and of course, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

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A Remarkable Memoir: "Educated", by Tara Westover - Book Review

Having no expectation when I picked this book up based on a friend’s recommendation, I was surprised by this jarring true story and the austerity with which it was told. Author Tara Westover has written a memoir about her upbringing in Idaho, living under the iron fists of her father and brother, both abusive in different ways, yet all in the name of religion and family good.  

Westover begins her childhood largely in isolation from mainstream society helping with her father’s scrap business and watching her older siblings leave one by one. Her father, self-righteous, delusional, and paranoid, managed the family by fear. Her mother followed him regardless of his destructive path. The family did not believe in organized education nor modern medicine, and had a great distrust for the government. Tara and her siblings were “home schooled”. Except really, they were not academically educated at all unless they sought to teach themselves. Injuries, of which there were many, were treated by their mother with essential oils and energy healing.

Educated: A Memoir
By Tara Westover

Westover had the intelligence and fortitude to understand, even as a child, that hers was not a healthy environment. She’s built up defenses to survive, yet it was not enough, and she had the fortitude to pursue a formal education. In doing so, this small act of defiance created a riff with some in her family, yet it helped to grow her awareness of the world and her own place in it. And over time, she confronted her family’s abuse.

Educated is about a family in crisis that calls to mind Marry Karr’s Liar’s Club. These people are severely broken, yet the author finds her inner strength to break away and discover her own path, fraught with its own challenges. Westover’s narrative style is without melodrama - she soberly conveys her experiences and emotional struggles, sometimes including the perspectives of siblings. She is quite remarkable for not only surviving, but earning her doctorate at Oxford and creating a career and life for herself; although, I’m sure still deals with the aftermath of her family’s decisions and hers. 

Published: 2018
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars

"A Heart in the Body of the World", by Deb Caletti

Finding it marketed as Young Adult, I picked this book up with little expectation. Boy, was I in for a surprise. It grabbed me from the start and never let go until the very end which I read with tears dripping onto the pages.

In the opening scene, Annabelle, the main character, has a mild encounter with some overly flirtatious boys that sets her off on a ten-mile sprint - in her school clothes and flats while still holding her fast food drink cup. At this point, we understand that there is clearly something going on with her.

After spending the night in a hotel just a couple of miles from home, she decides she’s going to run across the country. On her own. She doesn’t know how or really why, but she can’t stay in her current circumstance. Her loud Italian mom, Gina, is having none of it, but younger brother Malcolm, her biggest cheerleader, understands and helps her get going. And, on her second day of running, her true guardian angel, Grandpa Ed, shows up in his RV to follow her during the day and house her during the night.

Annabelle’s tragedy comes out piece by piece. We learn she is going to have to face Sean Greggory but we don’t know who he is. We learn of The Taker, a boy whom she never names, but we know she had a relationship with him that went very wrong. We learn of her old boyfriend, Will, and her best friend, Kat, and how she has mental conversations with them.

As Annabelle goes through staggering physical challenges on her cross country run, so, too, does she emotionally. At first, she is consumed by guilt and shame. Then grief. Then rage. Which carries her through all those times when she just wants to quit. “When you are a human being, you must decide and decide again to go forward. You must, or you won’t move from the worst that life offers to here……”

Caletti writes a breathtakingly beautiful story about so much pain. And, without giving away the story, I will just say that she touches on a number of today’s very hot topics with searing clarity. She writes from the perspective of a teenage girl in a fashion that makes it hard to believe she isn’t one. She shows how ALL love has its weaknesses, that no love is perfect, but what IS perfect is that we keep on trying. She speaks of activism and how all it takes is one person to start a chain reaction. “People plus people plus anger is how things can change.”

This is not a young adult book. This is an EVERYONE book. I think it should be required reading for all of those going through life. Caletti captures the frailty of the human existence while simultaneously extolling the absolute strength that can come from the human spirit – even one that seems crushed beyond recovery.

A compelling story with outstanding writing, A Heart in a Body in the World is ALL HEART.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse

Elizabeth’s rating: 5 stars

Social Commentary in an Elegantly Written Novel - "Unsheltered", by Barbara Kingsolver

This is my first time reading work by Barbara Kingsolver, and I’ve clearly been missing out. Her newest, Unsheltered, is her 15th published book. It is focused on protagonist Willa Knox, her charming and handsome husband, Iano, his ailing father who lives with them, and their two children in various stages of early adulthood and discovery.  Willa and Iano are doing all the right things - working hard, saving, kind and loving; yet things are literally falling apart around them - Iano cannot get tenure at the college where he teaches; Willa’s magazine has shut down and she’s now freelancing; her father-in-law’s health is deteriorating, and insurance doesn’t cover enough of the costs; and the house they recently moved into at Sixth and Plum is crumbling around them. Oh, then there are her two children - Tig, the caring, but mostly distant daughter who lives at home; and Zeke, trying to make it in a new career with an infant.

Unsheltered: A Novel
By Barbara Kingsolver

Willa has a lot going on, and while she works to hold everything and everyone together, including herself, Kingsolver introduces us to a parallel narrative over a century earlier - of a truth seeking science teacher with troubles of his own.  Thatcher Greenwood finds himself newlywed to a privileged wife, along with her sister and social climbing mother, living in a crumbling house…on the corner of Sixth and Plum. Thatcher’s progressive, Darwinism ideas is at odds with the local establishment. He is quite confined by both his family and employer, but holds rather dangerous friendships with both a woman scientist, Mary Treat, and a local newspaper editor who is at odds with the towns’ restrictive leadership. They both encourage Thatcher to work to change the traditional notions of science and learning - a dangerous path, as he discovers. Kingsolver has researched the real Mary Treat for this novel, a nineteenth century biologist, to bring her to life for us as a somewhat eccentric, intelligent, and lovely character.

The house is not the only common thread between Willa and Thatcher. Societal and dogmatic parallels can be found in characters across the years.  In Unsheltered, while Kingsolver displays a very human side - a happy marriage beset with adversity, children finding their way in adulthood, and well-intentioned people struggling with day to day conflict. She openly shares her social and political stance through her characters, and there is a bit of self-righteousness that comes through. While Willa is a super human to manage the crises that keep coming, it’s the fluid writing and authentic dialogue that really make this book special.

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars

"Southernmost", by Silas House - Book Review

Southernmost starts with a flood of biblical proportions. And sends its (mostly) protagonist preacher, Asher Sharp, awash in his own doubts. After a gay couple loses their home yet helps Asher and his son, Justin, to safety during the storm, Asher’s wife refuses to allow them to seek shelter with the Sharps because of their homosexuality. Asher begins to question every bit of his faith. As he internally wrestles with his feelings, he implores his congregation to do the same. Unfortunately, the most scalding portion of his otherwise reasonably tempered speech was captured on video by a child. And it went viral.

With the completely expected ouster from his church and demise of his marriage, Asher cannot accept his limited court granted access with his tender-hearted son, Justin, so he kidnaps him. Is it really kidnapping, you think, as you empathize with his desperate love for his child? Well, yes, taking a kid without letting the other parent know you are doing so and disappearing into the night to places unknown is exactly that.

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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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Fictional Depiction of Race in America Hits the Target in "Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult - Book Review

Small Great Things should be required reading for Americans.

The triumvirate of lead characters is: Kennedy, a white female criminal defense attorney; Ruth, a Yale educated, veteran black labor and delivery nurse; and, Turk, an early 20s male white supremacist.

Told from the three different voices of the main characters, the story revolves around the birth of Turk and Brittany’s first child, a son they named Davis (after the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis).

After Ruth is charged with a crime relating to the baby’s care in the hospital, Kennedy becomes her defense attorney. Having worked as a public defender for some years, Kennedy considers herself non-racist and without prejudice. Only through her relationship and representation of Ruth does she realize that her hyper-sensitivity to the race issue has never allowed her to actually see the differences that befall similarly situated people of different colors.

Ruth also struggles with the race issue. Chagrined by the fact that her mother still dons a uniform to work as a maid for a rich white family as she’s done Ruth’s entire life, Ruth moves into an upper-middle class, white neighborhood to make a ‘better’ life for her son. Meanwhile, Ruth’s sister, loud, black and proud in the ‘hood, never lets Ruth forget that she’s turned her back on her childhood and heritage.

And Turk? No struggling there. Reading his parts will set your teeth on edge. In the first line of his first chapter, he uses the N word. It is infuriating yet necessary in a book that goes to the heart of racism in this country.

For me, Kennedy’s character was the most eye opening. Her status in life and her views on race and prejudice mirror mine. But she’s forced to take a much harder look at her own prejudices that are just a part of her make up because of the color of her skin and the world into which she was born. She’s not racist, but she doesn’t fully grasp the true differences experienced by a black woman as educated and as accomplished as she until she’s thrust into Ruth’s daily existence.

Picoult, known for gut wrenching ironies at the end of her books, doesn’t disappoint in this one. And even though I saw it coming in Small Great Things, she writes it in a way that still hit like a knockout punch.

If there is a weakness here, it is the legal aspect. There were some pretty big holes relating to liability issues and crimes charged. But those can be overlooked. Racism and prejudice are the focus here, the crimes and the trial just a method of delivering the message.

Small Great Things doesn’t necessarily offer answers but it certainly raises thought-provoking questions about perceptions, white privilege and color blindness. The universal lesson that society could benefit from by reading this book is that, truly, you cannot understand someone else’s perspective unless you’ve actually made an effort to experience it. Not by just thinking about it, but by doing it. Have a friend with a different skin color? Go to a family dinner with him. Attend a church service at her church. Go shopping with them. Don’t have any friends of color? Ask yourself why not.  

Published: 2016
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 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