Old Friends: The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (review)

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Phaedra Patrick
MIRA Books

Over the past few years, old folks have squeezed their way into readers’ TBRs and onto bookstore “Staff Recommends” shelves. I’ve met so many Old Friends. Like Ove and Britt Marie; Miss Queenie and Harold Frye; Etta and Otto. And I’ve loved them all, I really have. These old Curious-Charms-of-Arthur-Pepperfolks are often irascible, sometimes lovable, and always wounded. After carrying life’s disappointments and tragedies for six or more decades, they come–finally–to love, and they can greet their last days with grace.

Phaedra Patrick’s The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is a book that belongs in those TBR piles, but Patrick uses a lighter touch than other authors. Arthur Pepper mourns his wife Miriam. In some feeble attempt to hold on to their life together, Arthur dresses the same each day in his “husband uniform”: sweater vest and gray slacks. He rises at 7:30, breakfasts at 8, and continues his day in the same regimented way. His daughter Lucy frets over him; his neighbor Bernadette feeds him. But when the first anniversary of Miriam’s death arrives, Arthur decides it is time to clean out her closet and pack up her clothes.

It’s then that he discovers a heart shaped box in an old pair of boots, and inside a gold charm bracelet he had never seen before. (A little odd, considering Miriam and Arthur had been married over forty years.) Puzzled by what each charm might represent–an elephant, flower, book, artist’s palette, tiger, ring, and thimble–Arthur decides to solve their mystery, if only to keep the memory of Miriam with him a little longer. He begins by calling a gentleman in India, and his adventures eventually take him to London and France.

Along the way Arthur comes to appreciate a Miriam he never knew, and this both comforts and saddens him. How can he reconcile their quiet domestic life against the backdrop of her past with its parties and travel and lovers? And as in most of the Old Friends books, Arthur comes to know himself better. He has, after all, traveled a hero’s journey. The plot of Curious Charms is a little more pat than some of the other novels, and Arthur a little less complex than other Old Friends, but it is still an endearing read.

Too close to home: Evensong (review)

Evensong (NetGalley)
Kate Southwood
G.W. Norton

evensong by Kate SouthwoodLast December my money market company sent me a cheery email reminding me to file for a required distribution–they also told me my estimated life expectancy was 27.5 years. Merry Christmas to you, too, Fidelity!

Still, as I approach the end of another decade, I find myself looking back on the years and wondering. And I’ve got a lot to wonder about. My children, for instance. Miscarriage. Divorce. My difficult father. His death. Addiction. Estrangement. Don’t get me wrong–there have been more moments of joy than not. Days on the front steps watching the kids play in the sprinkler. Meeting the love of my life. Sitting in a candlelit cathedral every Sunday. Camp fires and beach days.

It’s those difficult times, however, that have pushed and prodded me to snap out of any Pollyanna daydreams and get on to the business of reorganizing and rearranging my life. The process is painful … and bittersweet.

The main character in Kate Southwood’s new novel, Maggie Doud, is right there with me. She’s in the hospital after a heart attack and must come to terms with her frailty, the approaching end of her life, and the relationship she has with her daughters Joanne and Lee. Adults now, their relationship is fraught with the resentment and rejection. The girls compete fiercely for their mother’s love–Joanne by being the best and brightest, Lee by being conciliatory. Maggie sees her daughters “circling each other to work out everything they need to know before I die … because they still haven’t realized that I’ve been circling myself all these years, trying and failing to be brave, trying to riddle out the truth of it and portion out the blame in all the places it should be.”

As so often is the case in women’s lives, they can trace the source of their brokenness to a cruel and calculating husband and father. Maggie’s husband Garfield was handsome and successful, but also bellicose and controlling. Maggie forever wondered why he had chosen her–a quiet, even timid, girl who had always lived in the shadow of her more beautiful and outgoing sister Estelle. (But of course any woman who has experienced a controlling husband knows they often target those of us who are young and shy because we’re that much easier to manipulate.) Garfield left Maggie a widow when the girls were teenagers. And although his death freed them from his demands, his presence shadowed them for the rest of their lives.

As she recovers at home cared for by her granddaughter Melissa, Maggie comes to terms with her relationship to her daughters and tries to make sense of her life with Garfield. As Melissa adjusts Maggie’s pillows, tempts her with food, and massages her feet with Jergens, Maggie thinks, “I want to tell her not to be afraid. That her life will change, that everything will change and change again and it will seem sometimes that she is adrift, but she won’t be.”

Her days finally moored in the home she loves, Maggie Doud reconciles her past–and that blame she’s been riddling out is finally put to rest.

I only hope I’m as lucky.

Going home again: The Last Days of Cafe Leila (review)

The Last Days of Cafe Leila (NetGalley)
Donia Bijan
Algonquin Books

When I was in high school, I read Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again in junior English. I don’t remember much about the novel except for its melancholy. And I’m guessing I’d appreciate the novel much more now that I’ve lived a few lives myself. But the title has always stayed with me, and I thought of it immediately after turning the last page of Donia Bijan’s beautiful novel The Last Days of Cafe Leila.

Set in Tehran, Iran the novel follows the Yadegar family from the 1930s through the revolution and on to present day. Zod inherits Cafe Leila from his parents and it is the social center for his Tehran neighborhood and beyond. (Zod also inherits a wife from his brother, but that is another story.) The food is exquisite, the staff warm, and all are welcome. The revolution in 1979 changed life in Tehran. Sensing impending danger, Zod sent his two children Noor and Mehrdad to the United States to attend university. Thirty years pass before Noor returns home, impelled by a crisis–her husband’s infidelity–and dragging along her teenage daughter Lily.

Noor wraps herself in the comfort of her childhood memories as she helps run the cafe and tends to Zod whose health is failing.  The food, her childhood bedroom, her beloved nanny all ground her again–and eventually transform her relationship with Lily. And perhaps because of the solace Noor finds in the Cafe Leila, she decides to stay.

Except you can’t go home again.

Too much has changed, and try as she might, Noor can’t deny her American sensibilities. How else to explain her outrage at the acid attack on a young girl Lily befriends? Or the assertiveness that turns dangerous when she is stopped by the police? Noor might very well love her childhood home, but she surely can’t live there any more. The country has changed; she has changed.

And of course there is the food. The novel is, after all, set in a cafe, so there is no shortage of exotic smells and spices and Persian dishes. We have this: Zod “filled the pockets [of featherlight brioche] not just with beef and onions, but peach jam, saffron rice pudding …” And this: “He soaked prunes and took out meaty shanks to roast with onion for plum soup. he shaped chickpea patties, strained yogurt, and stirred quince custard.” Amber Darjeeling tea stirred with honey. Pomegranate juice.

The Last Days of Cafe Leila is a beautifully written love letter, evocative and moving–a story that transports the reader to a time and place that won’t soon be forgotten.

I love fat books and I cannot lie: Dietland (review)

Diet Land
Sarai Walker
Mariner

There may not be a woman in the Western world who hasn’t, at one time or another, had an issue with her weight. I know I have. For years I was too skinny. Then just right. Finally got a little-meat-on-my-bones okay. Putting-on-some pounds-better-watch-it. Downright overweight. Plenty has been written about The Struggle.

In her first novel, Dietland, writer Sarai Walker dives head first into empowerment and body image. (For women, that is. Do men even think twice this stuff?) Before I get too far into writing about Dietland, let me say it’s not for everyone. Walker’s characters curse plenty and slang is used instead of proper anatomical terms. There are descriptions of porn and a little self-pleasuring goes on. There’s also some pretty graphic descriptions of men who have been kidnapped and murdered. So this is where you decide whether or not to bail or read on. But unfiltered though it may be, Dietland covers some important territory.

Plum Kettle has tried it all since she was sixteen. Waist Watchers.  A famous diet of frozen meals and pills supplemented with meetings of evangelical proportion, called the Baptist Plan after founder Euylayla Baptist. Nothing has worked. Now pushing thirty, Plum is awaiting bariatric surgery. She’s apprehensive, but after a life of dieting, willing to take the risk. Plum works from home answering emails for a ‘tween beauty magazine Daisy Chain, spending hours a day responding to girls’ questions about cutting, small breasts, creepy stepbrothers, and more. When editor Kitty Montgomery calls her into the office one morning, Plum falls into a rabbit hole of revolutionary feminists whose goal is to bring the system down. Some of the revolutionaries are social justice workers with a positive, albeit radical, outlook–and others, not so much. (Which is where the kidnapping, murder, and dismembering–usually with the emphasis on “member”–of those men comes into play.)

Plum’s first awakening is to let go of her obsession with food–instigated by an offer of $20,000 if she follows a transformative “diet” plan suggested by Verena Baptist, daughter of the late weight loss guru. Plum finds community at a women’s cooperative. She sleeps (and eats) a lot. She develops a fashion style. Plum, like so many women who finally come to terms with their bodies, recognizes she needs to change from the inside out.

Walker alternates the stories of the characters’ present with their past–and we discover that even the women who resort to violence are driven by our culture’s misogynist response to them. Dietland is a difficult book to read in many ways–one that tells the truth, but tells is slant, as Miss Emily Dickinson would say.

If you’d like to pair your reading of Walker’s fiction with a good memoir, be sure to read Half-Assed by Jennette Fulda. Plum and her feminist band would love Fulda’s honesty, wit, and sass–I know I did.

So there you have it. Feminism and weight loss are not mutually exclusive. I know–because when my own weight loss was an inside job it was empowering, not repressive.

My Book Breakup: The Shadow Land (review)

The Shadow Land (NetGalley)
Elizabeth Kostova
Ballantine Books
release date: April 11, 2017

I’ve never read horror –or monster–stories. (Except I do love my Frankenstein!) Most teens go through a scare-the-wits-out-of-me reading phase, but not me. So you wouldn’t think I’d fall for a book about shadow landDracula, but I did. And let’s face it. The Historian got so much buzz when it was published, how could I not? The adventures of Paul and Helen searching Vlad the Impaler’s burial place in Bulgaria and Budapest–the mountains, the monasteries, the countryside–were just as thrilling as the tales of Dracula. The novel was myth layered over history layered over politics and even at 647 pages I didn’t want it to end.

So I was so excited to get an advance digital copy of Elizabeth Kostova’s third novel, The Shadow Land. The publisher’s blurb said only that a young American in Bulgaria is left holding an “ornately carved wooden box” and inside? “… an urn filled with human ashes.” The girl, it seems, mistakenly takes the bag of a handsome gentleman she bumps into in a taxi line. Sounded to me like I might go on another romp to Vlad’s stomping grounds–could this be another (true) vampire story? Because, remember, at the end of The Historian, the narrator gets a small velvet book that isn’t hers …

But no. This is a story about that American, Alexandra Boyd, and her attempts to return those ashes. She’s befriended by taxi driver Bobby Iliev, who drives her from the city of Sofia to a monastery to the mountains to another village … and they’re always just behind (or maybe it’s ahead of) the Man Who Lost His Bag. Kostova alternates several tales: the race to return the ashes, Alexandra’s childhood, Stoyan Lazarov (he of the ashes), and, eventually, Bobby’s background. The only horror in the novel is the horror of Bulgaria’s past as a Soviet bloc country. For my reading taste, it was a patchwork of stories that never quite came together. And, sadly, didn’t hold my interest.

I’ve become quite familiar with the disappointment of reading books that don’t meet my standards for good storytelling. So I think what bothers me the most is this–was my dislike of Shadow Land based on the story itself–or the writing–or the fact that for months I had been anticipating a return to The Historian? It’s happened before. I was captivated by The Thirteenth Tale and then aghast at Bellman & Black. (Maybe “aghast” is a little strong … ) If you read enough, you’ll read plenty of clunkers.

The Shadow Land will be released on Tuesday, April 11, and I’m impatient to read what other reviewers have to say. Who knows? Maybe it’s just me.