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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"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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The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses), by Terri-Lynne DeFino

Having read fantasy and romance from DeFino, I wondered how a straight up fiction novel of hers would be. I know that DeFino dislikes being pigeon holed into genres since she sees so many books falling into more than one. Which is exactly the case with The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers. In fact, her straight up fiction book has both romance and fantasy neatly inserted within its pages.

Set in, yes, (you guessed it), Bar Harbor at, yes, (you’re right again), a retirement home for aging writers, DeFino quickly introduces a cast of diverse and thoroughly developed characters. Of the writers, there is Alfonse, a sort of elderly Dos Equis man, the most famous of the authors. Then, there is Olivia, his ex-lover and quick-witted marijuana smoker; Judi, the group stenographer who laments the realization of her increasing dementia, and Switch, the taciturn, good hearted spoil sport. On the employee side, there is Dr. Kintz, kind and flustered, as he tries to manage these aging autocrats as well as his trove of damaged employees. And, Cecibel, the physically marred orderly who becomes Alfonse’s muse; Sal, the massive black nurse who moonlights as Wispy Flicker, the drag queen; and, Fin, the convicted murderer. Yep, I have that right.

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Coming of Age in Post WWII London in "Warlight", by Michael Ondaatje - Book Review

I’ve read all but one of Michael Ondaatje’s novels, with varying degrees of enjoyment - ranging from really good to wonderful. Each are unique in subject and in method of unraveling their stories; however, all retain Ondaatje’s style. It’s a style that is hard to describe - at once uncomplicated in prose, yet with depth of character and emotion.  I suppose he is able to say so much with so little.

Ondaatje’s latest release, Warlight, shows such restraint. From the innocence of a child whom we follow into adulthood, we hear from protagonist Nathaniel, unraveling his own life and that of his mother’s. Nathaniel is 15, his sister Rachel is 17 when their parents supposedly depart for Singapore for a year. The opening line lures the reader in with, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”. Nathaniel takes us through his strange adventure of post-war England; of London, a city still dark with destruction from German bombs; of dim lights and persistent fog - all that form the silhouette of warlight.

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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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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