The Forgotten Guide to Happiness: review

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness
Sophie Jenkins
Avon (July 2018)

Lana Green writes romance novels–or at least one, the best seller Love Crazy. Her second romance, Heartbreak, has just gotten a thumbs Forgotten guide to Happinessdown from her publisher. The reason? It’s bleak and bitter, hardly the stuff of romance. Except Lana was just writing what she knew. And what she knew was that the hero of Love Crazy, photographer Marco, had dumped her the heroine Lauren, just as Lana’s photographer boyfriend Mark had dumped her. See where this is going?

And to be sure, for the first few chapters, Sophie Jenkins’ The Forgotten Guide to Happiness is chick lit, plain and simple. Numbing her broken heart in a pub, Lana meets a scruffy IT guy, Jack Buchanan. Over wine and a beer, she confesses she needs to find a new hero for her second book–and Jack sets out to become that hero. Romance ensues.

But, wait a minute … not so fast.

It turns out that Lana is also looking for a job and a place to live, what with the fact that she didn’t get her book advance and all.  And Jack has just the thing. His step-mother suffers from dementia and has become increasingly difficult to manage; social services is threatening to intervene. Add to the mix that his step-mom is none other than the famed feminist writer Nancy Ellis Hall, and Lana quickly agrees to become her companion and caregiver. At first, Lana is convinced that Nancy, who carries around a black notebook and scribbles in it furiously, is still writing. (In fact, Lana even thinks she might be able to help the ailing Nancy write a new book.) And while Lana’s denial is based on her infatuation of the writer Nancy used to be, she soon comes to love the Nancy who is–and that Nancy draped her head with sheets of toilet paper and insisted she was eight years old; she kept a pastry brush in her purse and set the table with clothes pins, a book, and a ruler; that Nancy quoted the bible as her own work and bit the woman who ran the London Literary Society where Lana tutored–Nancy, the woman she cared for and loved, might seem strangely out of touch, but Lana “knew what [Nancy] meant. Language is just a means of communication, and she could communicate and I could understand her.”

It’s got to be a tricky business to write about a character with dementia, but Sheila Jenkins handles the character of Nancy tenderly, lightly, always with compassion–just as Lana does. And I hope that someday, should my aging self need a minder, I encounter someone with just as much love.

And about that love story Lana is trying to write–Does Jack get a role to play? Does Marco return and win back Lana’s love? Will there be heartbreak or more crazy love? I think its fair to say The Forgotten Guide to Happiness has plenty of love (and happiness!) to go around.

A Fan Favorite: Catherine Ryan Hyde (review)

Heaven Adjacent
Catherine Ryan Hyde
Lake Union Publishing
June 2018

Heaven AdjacentWith over thirty books, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s fan base is deep. There are probably few who don’t remember the movie Pay It Forward which is based on her book by the same title; her novel Take Me With You is a favorite of mine. Hyde is a story-teller, plain and simple–her novels may not be high art, but the stories are compelling. Heaven Adjacent is no different.

Manhattan lawyer Roseanna Chaldecott has walked away from everything: her established law firm, apartment in the city, friends, and family. With the clothes on her back and a few things thrown in the back of her Maserati, she heads for the hills (literally) and runs out of gas next to a piece of property with a FOR SALE sign posted in the yard. The house (if you can call it that) is barely two rooms, unheated save for a wood stove. There’s an even smaller out-building and an unoccupied barn. Perfect for someone who wants to escape from the stress of modern life–for someone who wants quiet. Peace. Freedom. And little, if any, human interaction.

Except that’s hardly how it played out for Roseanna.

Before she knew it, Roseanna has a young veteran camping in the woods by the creek, a mother and her five-year-old daughter squatting in the out-building, and an elderly man living on her Adirondack retreat. Her estranged son shows up on her doorstep. Add a dog and an old horse and you see how things weren’t going as she planned.

Roseanna fled New York broken-hearted and shaken: her best friend and law partner Alice died of a massive stroke at fifty-three. Alice, like Roseanna, was working full tilt, waiting for the day she could retire. And then … gone. The work? The sacrifice? All for nothing. Roseanna becomes an evangelist, of sorts, nudging others to ask themselves: am I really happy? As you can imagine, that peace and quiet suddenly becomes less and less important, and Roseanna’s relationships with Nelson and Patty and Willa and Martin and Lance become what she was seeking all along.

I had only one reservation. Hyde seems, at times, to use Roseanna as her own mouthpiece, and it comes off a bit didactic, even though fitting with the story. I want my characters to be human beings in their own right, not the writer’s proxy. But because I loved the story, I could forgive that flaw.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: review

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi
William Morrow

Be honest.

photo credit@National Geographic

How much do you really know about Afghanistan? That it’s the site of one of the United States’ longest foreign wars. That it was the seat of Osama bin Laden and el Qaeda. Maybe you read The Kite Runner, so you have at least a better-than-average understanding of what life in Afghanistan might be like. And everyone remembers the Girl With the Green Eyes on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. But if you’re like me, I’m guessing that’s the extent of it, right?

Nadia Hashimi’s novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the story of Rahima, one of four sisters in a poor family at the turn of the 21st century. Her Pader-jan is off fighting with the war lord; the Taliban rules the streets. And without a brother to escort the girls to school and the marketplace, they are virtually prisoners in their own home. (What makes matters even worse is that Pader-jan is an opium addict who is–let’s just say–less than helpful when he is home.) Rahima’s Mader-jan suggests that the nine-year-old become bacha posh, a custom in which a young girl takes the role of a male child. After all, Rahima’s great-great-grandmother was a bacha posh, too, so there is family history to consider. So the girl’s hair is cut short. She wears pants. Barters with the shopkeepers. But even better? As Rahim, she plays soccer, walks freely down the street, looks neighbors in the eye, and gets out of any woman’s work around the house. A stranger on the street would think Rahima really was a boy.

Pearl that broke its shellHashimi alternates between Rahim’s story and Shekiba, her great-great grandmother–and reveals the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in Afghanistan over one hundred years. We experience life in a family compound with farmers who barely eke out a living. We shrink at the blows overbearing mothers-in-law rain on young wives. We live in a war lord’s harem. We feel what it’s like to be number three wife and backhanded by an angry husband for some insignificant infraction.

Those stories laid a groundwork for understanding modern day Afghanistan, at least through the eyes of a the women. So readers learn how powerful husbands enter a wife’s name in the running for a seat Parliament because western powers had dictated that a certain number of ministers be women. How those female ministers had ‘minders’ who signaled to them how to vote. How even in 2007 women were not to watch television or use a computer. And how bearing children is still a woman’s greatest worth.

In every society, no matter how repressive, there are always women who slip through the gender-role cracks. In The Pearl that character is Khala Shaima , Rahima’s elderly spinster aunt who is old enough (and she herself would probably say ugly enough) to say anything to anyone and go where she wants when she wants to. Khala Shaima is always there to fight for Rahima and push her to think beyond the confines of her life–to some day find a way to a better life.

But exactly how that pearl breaks its shell is yours to discover.

[Not] Lost in translation: Hotel Silence (review)

Hotel Silence
Audur Ava Olafsdottir
trans. Brian FitzGibbon
Grove Atlantic

hotel silenceJonas Ebeneser built his life around the narrative of family: husband, wife, and child sustained by a Great Love.  But then his wife reveals a secret that causes him to question everything. They divorce. Add to this the fact that nearly every day Jonas visits his querulous mother in a nursing home where he must confront the loneliness and despair that so often accompanies old age and life simply becomes too much. Jonas decides to take preemptive action–and end his life.

Will the world miss me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world survive without me? Yes. Is the world a better place now than when I came into it? No. What have I done to improve it? Nothing. 

Pretty dire, no?

But even in his misery, Jonas can’t bring himself to kill himself in his home town where, most likely, his daughter Waterlily would find him. (And Jonas adores Waterlily.) So he leaves for an unnamed country in the Middle East ravaged by war, but recently quiet under a cease fire. Jonas buys a one-way ticket and writes a letter to Waterlily.

And it’s here that the magic of Hotel Silence begins.

One of three guests at the Hotel Silence, he is met with rusty water, out-dated furnishings, and broken fixtures. The proprietors, a brother and sister gradually–very gradually–come to be his friends. He is warned of the mines. Learns of mass graves and the soccer killing field. Witnesses the bullet-pocked buildings. Jonas takes his meals at Restaurant Limbo, where he is the only diner. And despite his personal despair, he begins to serve as the hotel’s handyman: rewiring, refinishing, and re-plumbing the rooms.

While Jonas rebuilds the Hotel Silence, he also begins to rebuild his own life. As he reflects on his life, we come to realize that his Great Love Story probably wasn’t. That as a young man he had felt unmoored. That his mother had always been difficult.

I nearly abandoned the novel not too far in. It’s a depressing subject, to be sure, but I was leery that it was rip-off of A Man Called Ove. And there was the language–the book was translated from Icelandic, and something about how the book read was slightly out-of-kilter. Nothing I can identify specifically–no odd diction or awkward syntax–but something just a little off-putting.

Hotel Silence won’t be for everyone, but Olafsdottir has a powerful message for us all: “Everything can happen. It can also be different than what one expected.” And one can still have a life well lived.

Paris By the Book: review

Paris By the Book
Liam Callanan
Dutton

Paris By the Book is a love story, plain and simple.
About a girl and her guy.
A reader and the author.
A bookseller and her shop.
A mother and her children.
An artist and Paris.

Leah was trying to finish her masters thesis on Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 movie The Red Balloon when she met her husband in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Met” is just a half truth–he actually chased her down after she shoplifted a copy of the picture book The Red Balloon from a Milwaukee bookstore. One thing led to another, then they were in a bar, discussing which author did Paris more justice: Lamorisse or Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline stories. It didn’t hurt Robert Eady’s appeal that he was an author in his own right. After publishing a few YA novels, he was trying to make his way in the world as a writer. So how do the poor student and the starving artist spend their courtship when they can’t afford to travel to Paris, France? They travel to Paris, Wisconsin–as well as Stockholm, Cuba, Montreal, and Berlin. All small towns in Wisconsin.

Paris by the bookThe rest, as they say, is history. Leah never finishes that masters thesis. She’s too busy working as a speech writer for a university president, supporting the couple while Robert tries to get his Next Big Novel finished. They have two daughters, Ellie and Daphne, and life is a whirlwind of birthday parties and university functions and neighborhood gatherings. Robert sometimes needs to retreat from the day-to-day grind to focus on his writing. He always leaves a note (“I’ll be back soon!”) and stays away for a few days at most. Leah lovingly calls them his “writeaways”–just a quirk of life when one lives with an artist.

That is until life begins to disintegrate. Because there has been no Next Big Novel. Money is tight. The couple argues. And Robert withdraws. So he leaves, presumably on one of his writeaways–but there is no note or phone call. Robert is gone a week, then two. Leah alerts the police and tries to stay calm, but there is no activity on his bank account or credit cards. No contact with friends or colleagues. He vanished. But after four months of limbo, Leah shakes a cryptic note out of a long-forgotten box of granola. It’s a confirmation number, her good friend Eleanor guesses–and within a week, Leah and the girls are on their way to Paris, France. On a flight Robert had booked before his disappearance. Because if he hasn’t shown up in the U.S., he’s sure to turn up in Paris, right?

As if that’s all not a crazy enough plot line, Leah buys an English language bookstore called The Late Edition. The three make some small headway into life without Robert–the girls attend school, Leah finds satisfaction in running the store. But there’s a strange sense that Robert is close at hand. Leah finds a copy of one of his books in the store with a scribbled “I’m sorry” in Robert’s handwriting. And the girls catch a glimpse of him on crowded streets.

The story’s ending fits where author Liam Callanan wanted to take Robert and Leah. And us, the readers. Oh, you might be frustrated. Vexed. And you might not know much more than you did at the beginning of the novel … but it’s a very writerly unwinding.

Paris By the Book also offers a brutally honest picture of a threadbare marriage that will either rip wide open or be darned back together. In fact, I could see my own life reflected in so many ways. I’ll let Leah speak for both of us here:

“I do want many things … to have raised brave independent daughters; to have read and loved every book on the shelves in my store. But more than anything, I had for the longest time, wanted Robert to be healthy, to be happy. To be here. He wanted to be elsewhere.”

“… I think [Robert] was afraid … of how much we loved him. Of how much that love required his presence.”

 “I do know what I saw in his eyes … I saw love, longing. What’s certain is that bodies, celestial or human, have a pull. It’s impossible to imagine he doesn’t still feel our tug. It’s impossible to imagine his fully gone.”

And finally:

“I don’t so much read anymore, but rather teeter, wonder, take flight … Like anyone who has ever started or finished a book, or a love affair, or confused the two, in sweet anticipation of the fall.”