Tuesday, January 21, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I was nine years old when I concluded that being a writer was the most important career in the world because books could make us cry and laugh and dream and envision another reality. The idea of being an art teacher or a music teacher or someone dedicated to God dropped by the wayside. I wanted to be a writer because of the great power of the pen, the way books change lives.

A book like American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins exemplifies the wisdom of the nine-year-old me. For in telling the riveting story of people who must leave their beloved homes to save their lives, Cummins gives faces to those we are told to fear, and when their stories move us we connect to the 'other' and experience our common humanity.

The cover blurb calls this novel "The Grapes of Wrath for our time." Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939 and was an instant best-seller in spite of being labeled "socialist propaganda." The Depression and Dust Bowl had driven 5000,000 people to leave their homes and travel across America, hoping to find work--to just survive. Steinbeck showed America who these migrants were, how they were treated, how they suffered on their journey.

Today's migrants also flee for their lives, not because of environmental degradation has destroyed their livelihood, but because of violence and lawlessness and human trafficking. They just want the freedom to survive.

American Dirt begins with an explosive chapter of horror and violence, with Lydia and her eight-year-old son in Lucas hiding, listening to the sound of sixteen family members being murdered. The choices made by Lydia and her journalist husband Sebastian brought them to this moment. Lydia was drawn to befriend Javier, a patron in her bookstore, unaware he was the head of a deadly cartel. And Sebastian wrote an expose' on Javier for his newspaper.

As Lydia and Lucas flee and make their way from Acapulco north they accumulate a rag-tag family, Soledad and Rebeca, sisters from the idyllic cloud forest now controlled by a cartel, and Beto, a world-wise child from the garbage dumps. Other travelers exemplify the diversity of migrants--a teen trying to escape the cartel, men who go north for work, a grad student brought to America as a child, a middle-class mother in America legally who is arrested during her routine check-in.

These people encounter all the terrors of the migrant journey, learning to scramble onto moving trains, hunger and thirst and weariness, continual fear, capture and ransom, rape, abuse--and the charity of helpers.

I was literally brought to tears when a man escorts Lydia, Lucas, and the sisters through town, protecting them with his size and machete. When asked why he did this for migrants he replied, "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink," with Lydia finishing, "A stranger and you welcomed me."

I spent my entire adult life as the wife of a clergyman. I know both scripture and what is required of us and the many ways we justify our actions--or inactions-- our sins of commission and omission. The ways we twist things, grab onto worldly values to sidestep doing what is right.

I also have seen how true faith is risk and perilous and how false faith separates, judges, and protects one's self-interest.

History teaches that silence is consent, inaction is approval. Something must stir the public's heart. Nothing does that like a good story.

The Grapes of Wrath caught Eleanor Roosevelt's attention and she called for the government to look into migrant camp conditions. As Susan Shillinglaw notes, “Empathy is the signature of the book—an empathetic response to human suffering."

And that is what American Dirt accomplishes.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

American Dirt
by Jeanine Cummins
Flatiron Books
Pub Date 21 Jan 2020 
ISBN 9781250209764
PRICE $27.99 (USD)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde

They were childhood friends who become lovers.

He wanted a comfortable life.

She wanted to save the world.

Would their love survive?

The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde is a compelling dystopian novel and a warning. It is also a heartbreaking story of lovers torn asunder by social forces.

The exotic pristine beauty of Norway is the symbol of the beauty and perfection of the world--which humankind is willing to sacrifice to continue an unsustainable lifestyle.

Signe's mother was willing to destroy their Norweigan habitat so the community could progress and thrive by the diversion of the river into a power plant. Her family hotel needed this to survive.

Signe's father protested the loss of the water ouzel, a tiny mollusk that cleaned the water and lived 100 years, and the natural beauty of the River Breio and its waterfall. He and Magnus's father tried to stop the plan. They failed.

At university, Signe and Magnus become lovers and seem to be following in their father's footsteps in protecting the environment. But Magnus opts instead for the status quo--a good life--working for Signe's mother. Signe leaves him.

Years later Signe learns that Magnus is harvesting the glaciers and selling the ice. It is time for one more act of resistance.

The legacy of their actions will impact future climate refugees David and Lou. In 2041, France is burning and the family flees. In the turmoil, David and his daughter Lou are separated from his wife Anne and their infant son. They travel to a refugee camp, at first an oasis of order providing basic needs. Later, things tumble into chaos.

This grim warning on the natural outcome of climate change also offers hope in the healing forgiveness of love.

I received a free ARC from the publisher through Bookish First in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The End of the Ocean
by Maja Lunde
translated by Diane Oatley
Harper Via
On Sale: 01/14/2020
hard cover $27.99
ISBN: 9780062951366
ISBN 10: 006295136X

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan

Ordinary people in extraordinary times can accomplish the heroic. 

Father of Lions: One Man's Remarkable Quest to Save the Mosul Zoo by Louise Callaghan tells the story of the people who worked to save the Mosul Zoo animals under unimaginable circumstances. The privations of wartime, the societal and political shifts under ISIS, and the extraordinary measures taken to extract the animals are vividly rendered. 

Abu Laith loved animals. As a boy, he brought home two dogs who became his constant companions, which set him apart in a society that condemned dogs as unclean. He learned everything he could about wildlife from National Geographic and dreamed of creating his own zoo where the animals had open spaces instead of cages. 

Upset by the neglect of the zoo animals across the street from his Mosul home, he contacted the distant zoo owner and became the zookeeper. He hand-raised a baby lion he called Zombie. He loved the lions and bears and monkeys and took great pride in their care.

When ISIS took over Mosul and set up camp in the zoo, Abu Laith went into hiding with his family. He fretted over his beloved animals' neglect, but under threat from ISIS was unable to leave his home. He hired a man out of his own pocket to care for the zoo. 

And then the Iraq war came.
For over two and a half years, Abu Laith endeavored to keep his beloved animals alive. At the end of the ISIS occupation of the zoo, there were only a few starving animals left. A former government scientist became involved and contacted an Austrian charity that rescued animals. Egyptian veterinarian Dr. Amir risked everything to bring the remaining animals out of Mosul.

Life in Mosul before and during ISIS occupation is central to the story. One of the most difficult scenes involved Abu Laith's wife giving birth--unable to even raise the veil covering her face! 

During the war, families squeezed into one room while under bombardment, enduring long hours of boredom and isolation. It was a struggle to find food and dangerous to even prepare it.

After the war, women lifted their unveiled, pale faces to the sun for the first time in years. The streets once again were filled with people. Zombie was repatriated to his native element. And readers rejoice with their reclaimed freedom.

I received an ARC through Bookish First in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Father of Lions
by Louise Callahan
Forge Books
On Sale: 01/14/2020
$27.99 hardcover; $14.99 ebook
ISBN: 9781250248947

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Anna Dale. 

Morgan considered the artist signature on the mural she was to restore, wondering how a promising young artist had 'gone crazy' and mysteriously disappeared.

Anna had won a contract through a WPA art competition to create a mural for the Edenton post office. Now, the mural was filthy and the paint was flaking after years in famed African American artist Jesse Jameson's William's closet. Morgan was out of prison early, named in Jesse's will to restore the mural which would hang in the art gallery provided for in his will.

Morgan was not an established artist. She knew nothing about art restoration. She doubts her ability to meet the timeline.

Morgan is filled with guilt over the night when she and her boyfriend drank too much and their car struck a young woman.

The mural is filled with incongruous images: a motorcycle peaks from under ladies skirts, a lumberman holds a bloody hammer, skulls peer out from house windows. What had happened to Anna? Morgan delves into solving the mystery.

Readers learn about Anna's Depression-Era Edenton and the violent acts that altered her life. And how Anna's mural helps Morgan to learn her strengths, overcome her past, and embrace new relationships.

Big Lies in a Small Town was a quick-reading, engaging read, focusing on the challenges and resilience of two women, with a mystery to solve and a romance to blossom.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Big Lies in a Small Town
by Diane Chamberlain
St. Martin's Press
Pub Date 14 Jan 2020
ISBN: 9781250087331
PRICE: $27.99 (USD)

Monday, January 13, 2020

Long Bright River by Liz Moore; Kensington and Me

Kensington view in 1982; once a manufacturing center, most of the factories were abandoned
A hot, humid Sunday in late July, the atmospherean elixir of chemical smells.No human voice breaks the stillness of hazy air.Here is only the arid stretch of concrete,the glare of sun on trolley tracks,the vacant, lidless, terrible black holesof abandoned factorieswhose broken walls spew silent sighsinto deaf, empty streets.The sky is faded to a worn blue-gray
cloudless under the early strong sun. 
from The City Dead by Nancy A. Bekofske

I had no patience. I had to read Long Bright River NOW. I picked it up on Friday. Saturday it rained all day long and I spent it reading. I finished the novel before I turned out the light to sleep.

I had read Liz Moore's novel The Unknown World and loved it. But my interest in this new novel was it's setting--Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived for just under two years, leaving in 1982. 
the view from our back door on Allegheny Ave. in 1982
I was a sheltered girl from the Detroit 'burbs. Driving down Allegheny Avenue I once quipped that I never wanted to live there. A few years later, my husband turned down an associate pastor position at a posh suburban church and asked for an inner-city position. And we found ourselves in Kensington, a few blocks from K&A. 
Our home on Allegheny Ave. near B St. was once posh 'doctor's row'
The house had an enclosed porch, once a waiting room, a living room once divided from the dining room and the kitchen in the back. Upstairs were three bedrooms and a bath. The basement had a cedar closet stuffed with every curtain that had hung in the parsonage, a 1930s gas range, and an asbestos covered furnace that powered the hot water heat.
the back bedroom with original closet with shelves
And cockroaches of all types and mice that took over the oven. I cleaned before we cooked--dishes, oven, stove, countertops--everything.
we were surrounded by empty factories
My husband had a two-point charge. The church at Front and Allegheny was larger.
Providence UMC at Front and Allegheny Ave.

Nestled in the middle the neighborhood rowhouses was Mt. Pisgah at Kip and Cambria. 
Mt Pisgah, Kip and Cambria, Kensington
Don't get mad--get even, we were told, was how things were done in Kensington. They laughed at our ideals rooted in an easy life.

The houses were valued at $2,000. They could not afford to move to the $25,000 houses in Mayfair. There was no off-street parking. No jobs. Young adults paired off and had children while still living with their respective parents. The youth hung on street corners under the streetlights. But they kept an eye on things, protecting their own. They always greeted us.
walking to dogs around the block in Kensington
Long Bright River centers on K&A, Kensington and Allegheny Avenues. Once a thriving business center in a working-class neighborhood, but more recently the 'Walmart' for opioid addicts.
Allegheny Avenue, under the El
Allegheny Avenue
In the opening scene, cop Mickey and her partner Lafferty are called when a body is found. 900 overdose victims were found in Kensington the year before, and Mickey fears that her estranged sister Kacey will be the next one.

When more bodies of young women are found, Mickey becomes obsessed with finding her sister, who has been an addict since her teenage years. She risks her job, her relationship with her four-year-old son, and her life as she searches to find Kacey. It is a journey that takes her deep into the back streets off K&A and into the heart of the underworld of drugs, prostitution, and crime.
View of Kensington from the El
Moore's characters are conflicted and real, the plot foreboding and dark, and the setting vividly drawn. It was like I was back.

On every corner was a bar and a small store. In the hot summer nights, we could hear the booming bass of music from the jukebox at our local bar. The summer sun could be relentless. People sat on their 'stoop' and visited in the cooling evening. Kids played in the car-lined streets.

Our neighbors included a man who worked for a neighborhood $1 movie theater with a teenage son. The son would jump from his roof into the yard below when he saw me leave the house. I would not let him get a rise out of me and merely said hello.

On the other side was a family of renters. We would sit on the stoop evenings and chat.

Kensington street in 1980

I walked to K&A and took the El to work. Or we went downtown to Center City to shop or to go to a concert or museum--something the locals never did. All over the city, people stuck to their local neighborhoods. Maybe went to see the Mummer parade on New Year's Day. 

As schoolkids, Mickey and Kacey were bused to the Academy of Music to see The Nutcracker, something we saw several times. For Mickey it was magical.
Allegheny Ave. near B St., looking east toward Kensington Ave. The scene from our stoop.
Other Philly locals appear in the novel, including the adjoining neighborhoods of Fishtown and Port Richmond.

And Olney. When we left Kensington, we moved to Fern Rock, a few blocks from downtown Olney and lived there for seven years. Our Kensington renter neighbors were sad to see us leave and said we were the nicest neighbors they ever had.
me and our dogs at our stoop
The new pastor and his wife moved in. The neighbor boy broke into the house and stole from them. He later killed himself after beating his girl.
 walking the Ave
In 1982, Kensington was still mainly Catholic, white, and blue-collar. Ten years later, it had shifted ethnically, and all over the city, new drugs were taking over. Every now and then I would Goggle and learn more of its decline into the center of drugs and prostitution.

We left Philly in 1990 and returned to Michigan. I never forgot living in the most foreign place I had ever lived in--K&A.

In the novel, Mickey escapes to Bensalem in lower Bucks County; we had moved to Morrisville in Bucks Co. in 1974. It was a world away from Kensington. Mickey's son misses his school friends, his dad who lives in South Philly and who Mickey is avoiding.

The novel has surprising twists, painful scenes, and yet a hopeful ending.

Moore gives the opioid crisis faces and stories and we think, these people, these good people with blasted lives--it could happen to any of us. These children, born to addicts, born with addictions, growing in poverty and without hope. How can we allow this?

The Children
by Nancy A. Bekofske

Our children are dying.
Their eyes, full of broken wings, haunt me,
their questions sear the air like exhaust fumes.

How can we shatter such purity so?

Childhood's haven destroyed,
there is left no serene rock 
upon which to root and grow.
They learn to walk on the jagged edges
of broken dreams, and to feast
on the small parcel of silence
between abuse and misuse.

And who we cannot kill, we strip
of immunity, prey of disease, 
the lure of easy money.
Playing on their porches
they are victims of war.
In the school yard
dogs are let loose on them
or sprays of bullets.

I have seen them on the streets
longing for a place to belong to,
knowing the world is a hard place,
learning to be hard to survive.
Dwarfed, afraid, they murder,
enacting dreams of power and control
over things too big to ever control,
filled with visions of Hollywood glory.

And this is the generation we will age under.

Years hence when we are confronted in anger
we cannot plead innocence:
These children alone are innocent.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Secret Garden Cookbook by Amy Colter

I read Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden after my mother told me she had read it as a girl, and that her mother had read it as a girl. It was the only book my mother ever mentioned having read as a child.

The beloved children's classic story tells the story of Mary Lennox who had lived a life of ease in India; after cholera takes her family, she is sent to live in England. Adjusting to her new life, the lonely girl meets local boy Dickson and together they discover and revive a neglected garden. Although rife with dated colonialist and racist attitudes, the basic story of regeneration is timeless.

Food plays an important role in the book, and cookbook author Amy Colter shares recipes inspired by the story, newly revised and updated to appear with the release of the new The Secret Garden movie. Quotations from the novel regarding food are interspersed.

Colter's chapter introductions informs readers on many subjects from the typical Victorian meals to what was in a kitchen garden to the history of tea.

So many of these recipes are homely and wholesome and nostalgic. 

Chapters include: 
  • Yorkshire Breakfasts; Coddled Eggs are so simple--why don't we made them every week? I do make my own cocoa mix--this recipe has a dash of cinnamon!
  • A Manor Lunch; this casual meal could include Potato Snow, Roasted Chicken with Bread Sauce, or Welsh Rabbit.
  • An English Tea; I am now dreaming of Warm Cranberry Scones with Orange Glaze and Fruit Tea Loaf!
  • From the Kitchen Garden; Wholesome fresh food including Sweet Glazed Carrots and easy Summer Berry Pudding.
  • Dickon's Cottage Food; Tattie Broth, Pease Pudding, Yorkshire Oatcakes--this is my idea of comfort food!
  • A Taste of India; Exotic recipes from Colonial India includes Fruit Lassi, Mulligatawny Soup (which I make frequently!), and Fresh Magno Chutney.
  • Garden Picnics; Including the easy to transport Cornish Pasties, brought to my home state of Michigan by immigrants working in the copper mines--a complete meal.
This is a delightful book.

I was given access to a free egalley by the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

from the publisher:
Experience the magic and enchantment of The Secret Garden whenever you like, right at home in your kitchen. The Secret Garden Cookbook, now newly revised, is the only cookbook that celebrates the delicious and comforting foods that play such an important role in the novel and its world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's wonderful tale The Secret Garden celebrates its young heroine, Mary Lennox, as she brings an abandoned garden back to life. It also delights in good food, robust appetites, and the health and strength they can bring. It describes a world where water, light, and loving care bring soil and plants back to life—and also one in which fresh milk, homemade currant buns, and hearty, simple fare renew and bring pleasure to the novel's complex and fascinating characters.

Amy Cotler serves up in these pages 50 recipes, all updated for the modern kitchen, that are at once true to Mary's world and completely appealing for today's tastes. You will find a bounty of baked things, including English Crumpets, Cozy Currant Buns, Jam Roly Poly, Dough Cakes with Cinnamon and Sugar, and The Best Sticky Gingerbread Parkin. (A parkin is a cake rich in molasses, honey, and sugar that often is served on Guy Fawkes Day.) There is more-substantial and savory fare for teatime and dinnertime, too, and for breakfast and brunch, along with drinks and snacks for the daily whirl—all guaranteed to keep the magic of this beloved tale alive for years to come.

The Secret Garden Cookbook is an essential companion—and the pitch-perfect gift—for anyone, young or old, who loves the book.

The Secret Garden Cookbook, Newly Revised Edition
Inspiring Recipes from the Magical World of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden
by Amy Cotler
Publisher: Harvard Common Press
Publication: Jan 14, 2020
Hardback, 112 Pages, $19.99 / £12.99
ISBN: 9781558329935

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Kiley Reid's debut novel Such a Fun Age offers an original and unique perspective on race and class through a page-turning story that is deceptively entertaining.

The setting was familiar--Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square and Kensington. My husband once worked at the corner of Rittenhouse Square and we spent 1980 living in Kensington. The two neighborhoods could not have been more different. The historic Rittenhouse Square and the upscale shops around it, ethereal sounds of music wafting from the Curtis Institute of Music; and Kensington with its empty factories and yardless rowhouses built to house textile factory workers. Money and privilege and the working poor. After we left, Kensington declined even more.

Reid's character Emira has graduated from my Alma Mater, Temple University, with a B.A. in English--as I did. I often proudly said that I held a degree that prepared me to read intelligently while impoverished. Emira has other complications: she has no idea what she wants to do in life and she is African American.

My first job out of Temple was working Christmas Rush at Strawbridge & Clothier's downtown; my second job was customer service at a Bala Cynwyd insurance company. Emira is a part-time typist for the Green Party and takes a part-time job as a babysitter. She shares an apartment in Kensington and hangs with her friends, wishing she had more disposable money like they do. Emira will soon be 26 and the impending loss of her parent's health insurance looms over her head. She needs a 'real job'.

The woman who hires Emira to babysit is Alix Chamberlain who has built a career as an influencer, married an older, well-off television newsperson, and has two children. She carries the heartache of her first love with Kelly, who dumped her just before prom over a misunderstanding and her ill-formed decision that proved disastrous for Kelly's African American buddy.

Emira has great affection for Alix's child. And, she badly needs the babysitting money. So when she gets a call for an emergency late-night sitting job she leaves her friend's birthday party at a bar. Dressed inappropriately, with a few drinks under the belt, hanging with a white child, Emira strikes the security guard as suspicious and she is nearly arrested. A white man records the incident and encourages Emira to prosecute. She isn't interested. But when they met up again later, they become involved personally. That man is Kelley.

Meantime, the incident causes Alix to take a closer look at her babysitter. She becomes emotionally attached to Emira, losing the boundary between the professional and the personal. This escalates to the point that Alix interferes with Emira's personal life with disastrous results for everyone. Except for Emira; she comes out the better, finally finding herself.

The interactions between races depicted in the novel were startling to me, first because I had not encountered them before in fiction, and secondly because they felt very true.

Do we white people really understand the implications of our behavior when we try to help, endeavor to show we are not prejudiced, are color blind or woke? Do people with comfortable lives really know what those who are struggling want from us? I mean, Alix sends leftovers and wine home with Emira! Is that helpful when what she really needs is health insurance?

Such a Fun Age reads like popular women's fiction but hits on important and relevant issues. It would be a great book club read.

I won a free book on Goodreads. My review is fair and unbiased.

Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid,

Such a Fun Age
by Kiley Reid
G. P. Putnam & Sons
ISBN-10: 052554190X
ISBN-13: 978-0525541905