A Family Saga

A Goddess Among Men by Daniel Davidsohn

From the Publisher: “

In 1907, Julian Welch and Alan Reid meet by chance in the jungles of the Amazon attracted by the riches of the rubber boom. Pioneers in an era of uncertainty, they form an unlikely alliance and establish the foundation for a successful empire, Reid & Welch. However, with Julian’s death, the empire is left to Alan, as is the responsibility for Julian’s newborn daughter, Christel.

Yet for Christel, there’s no growing up as a privileged heiress. Instead, Alan subjects her to a life few endure, much less overcome. Through her will to survive and being as uncompromising as she is beautiful, Christel puts the horrors of her past behind her and begins to build a seemingly bright future. But when the success built on corruption starts to crumble, Christel will be forced to address the past or pay for the sins of the fathers.”


I struggled to review this one a bit. While it was ostensibly a family saga covering three generations, there was so much else going on in this book. The story begins with a tenuous relationship between two men as they become business partners, then follows the next two generations of one of the partners with the other one as an ever-present entity.

In the beginning, there were two men who had each traveled to Brazil to find their fortunes. I found these parts enlightening. I do not know much about the rubber boon in Brazil and learned a little bit about this. Mostly, I learned about how underhanded and greedy people have been for a long time. Throughout this part, I did not understand why Julian continued to be involved with Reid.

Part two took a strange turn. Part of me wishes we went deeper into the seedy sides of this part. Julian asking Reid to take his daughter was dumb, and what Reid immediately did was insane. This part was certainly more episodic than part one. We got a hint of the terribleness that was happening, but there was a lot of insinuation. Not that I want to see anyone hurt or sexually abused in detail, but the idea that we need to believe the science experiments taking place are the worst ever, we may need to see more. Maybe it doesn’t have to happen to Christel, but we can see some of the experimentation for the other children involved.

The third part felt the most episodic and rushed. This happened and then that happened and then this happened with some loose narration between scenes. In some ways this worked, but in many ways it made me feel there were more questions than answers. I never felt emotional connection with any of the characters, but I thought several of the things encountered could have been more deeply examined.

At the end of the day, I did enjoy this story. I can recommend it without too many reservations and hope that others will find the storylines original and thought-provoking, even if they are a bit brief.

Thank you to NetGalley for a free review copy. All thoughts presented here are my own.



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Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

Everything Here is Beautiful is a lovely examination of mental illness and its effects on various relationships.  The story focuses on two sisters, one of whom lives with an unspecified mental illness (is it bipolar disorder? maybe it’s schizophrenia).  Told through various points of view, the illness plays a role in each character’s life.

Miranda and Lucia are Chinese-American sisters.  Miranda, the elder, is the responsible, practical sister.  While the younger Lucia has far more eccentricities.  And is battling with mental illness.  After the death of their mother, they are each other’s only family.  The struggles between these two sisters felt genuine on every page.

While the other characters in this book, especially Manuel and Yonah, are well-drawn and genuine, the sisters stole the show for me. The plight of each of these characters brought the story more devastatingly real.

This was a beautiful tale shedding light onto the plight of family’s facing mental illness.

 

When Montezuma Met Cortes by Matthew Restall

When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History

Mr. Restall has certainly done a lot of research on this subject! I, on the other hand, have not.  I reserved a copy of this book because the title sounded interesting and this is certainly a topic about which I know very little.

I liked his term “mythistory”. The idea we conflate stories so often that they have truly become our history is one I have reflected on often.  History is written by the victors, but does that make it accurate? Does that mean the vanquished have no story?

I have to say I found much of this book pedantic and difficult to read.  I have already stated I am not well-versed in this topic, so perhaps it was too academic a work for this reader.

I appreciated the author’s approach to his research as a mystery with multiple layers: what really happened, what appears to happen, and how the historian figured out which is which.  He then spends much of the book offering up the “old” story, negating it and replacing it with a new version of what really happened.

Two of the myths I do recall from my time before reading this book were that the Aztecs  regularly performed ritualistic and barbaric human sacrifices, and that Cortes was believed to be and treated  as a deity when he arrived in Mexico.  The author’s refutation of each of these stories was interesting and rational.

As this author has dedicated so much of his life, time and energy to studying Central American history, I will be seeking out his other titles when I am next seeking further knowledge of this region.

The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce

Another haunting read.  This one with an actual ghost.  The Afterlives is a subtle blend of technological fiction and an investigation into life after death.  When Jim Byrd dies (for several minutes), he sees “nothing, no lights, no tunnel, no angels.” This sends him on a quest to investigate the afterlife.

This story takes place in the near future and deals with some technological fiction including a phone app that monitors Jim’s heart and guest lectures from holograms.  These technological innovations play only a supporting role in the book, but they are there and for me, make “the machine” more plausible.

While Jim and his wife, Annie, are exploring possible answers to their big philosophical questions, they track down and find a woman who claims to have invented a machine that allows people to communicate with dead loved ones.  Her explanation is that people are only ever 93% in this world anyhow.  A stretch, but interesting nonetheless.

Between Jim’s existential wanderings, there is an older story of the ghost before she was a ghost.  I found myself looking forward to these interludes.  The dead woman’s story is told through multiple perspectives, truly giving the reader a sense of her time and place in history.  The tying together of past and future was handled masterfully.

While the characters were delightfully flawed, I found them to be believable and their quest an entertaining one.  As a person who has experienced loss, I find talk of the next life or what happens after our bodies are no longer viable, fascinating.  The concept that we are only ever 93% in this world was difficult for me to grasp.  But I do find it sticks with me as I spend more time mulling it over.

This was Pierce’s debut novel, and I will keep him on my radar for future adventures.

One Last Strike by Tony La Russa

This has been a brutal winter for me.  The temperature stayed low far too long for my liking.  But the promise of spring is in the air.  The birds are chirping, the trees are blossoming, spring training games are on the television and my phone is blowing up with news of player trades and hopes for the coming season.  That’s right, folks, spring is coming!

To prepare myself and to get excited about the season, I re-read Tony La Russa’s awesome memories of his 2011 season with the St. Louis Cardinals.  Tony had an amazing MLB career and I count myself very lucky to have been living in St. Louis during part of his tenure with the team.  I credit his baseball prowess with my own love of the game.  I had been to games in other cities in which I lived, but prior to my Cardinals experience, I didn’t fully appreciate the specialness of baseball.  Having fallen in love with the sport in their city, I will always be a St. Louis Cardinals fan.  (Aren’t I lucky they make it so easy?)

Tony’s book focuses a lot on his last season as coach, but he also manages to weave history throughout the pages of this delightful book.  The story of the fateful season is fraught with tension and I loved reliving the insanity that was September 2011 right into the post-season.  I am sure sportswriter Rick Hummel helped to make this book special.  For a work of non-fiction, I found it completely readable and enjoyable.

I know there will be people who have no interest in reading this book (Braves fans, Phillies fans, people who don’t like baseball), but for me and I am sure for many other baseball fans, this was a fantastic way to get excited about the upcoming season and the end of winter.  The 2011 season epitomized why we watch the game: There is no sure thing and anybody could be the winner, even if you are 10 1/2 games back in August.

May spring bring bright days and plenty of rally squirrels!

Reading by candlelight

I may need to stop paying my electric bill periodically.  Every few years, we experience a large enough storm to knock out my power for several hours (or days).  During these hours, I find myself settling into a candlelit atmosphere and opening a new book.  This year, I was fortunate enough to have a copy of Jesym Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing on hand.

The hype around this book was huge.  Everyone was talking about it.  It won the National Book Award, was nominated for a slew of other awards and made my to read list when it was long listed for the Morning News’s Tournament of Books.  It was short listed long before my copy became available at the library , but such is the life of an avid library patron.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a contemporary look at impoverished life in the southern United States.  At it’s  heart, it is a tale about a dysfunctional African American family struggling through life.  Leonie is a drug-addicted mother living with her parent waiting to reunite with her children’s father.  Jojo is a 13-year-old trying to find his place in the world; simultaneously being a child and raising his 3-year-old sister.  Mam and Pop, Leonie’s parents have stories to tell as well.  Ward weaves this story together through alternating points of view of Jojo and Leonie with the occasional assistance of a ghost named Richie.

The prose was absolutely lyrical.  My own reading, in a mostly dark living room with the flickering candlelight may have helped make this ghost story even more haunting and emotional.

While the story takes us on a road trip through Mississippi, it is mostly a character-driven story.  The history of all involved is spooned out quietly and revealed in beautiful, if heartbreaking ways.

This was not a long book (285 pages), but it had depth.  My power was restored before I finished the book, but the haunted feelings remained.  I have previously read Dr. Zhivago and Fall on Your Knees by candlelight and both have certainly remained in my good favor long after I closed the covers.  Not to worry, I will continue to pay my bills, but maybe I will remember to unplug once in awhile and read a new book by candlelight.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

I picked this up at my library off the librarian recommendation shelf.  I recognized the author’s name and the title piqued my curiosity.  I love reading and learning about how others read and what they admire, expect, watch for to help make my reading more informed.

Ms. Prose spends an entire book evaluating paragraph after paragraph of classic literature.  She looks at word choice and placement to examine the make up of a story by it’s core parts rather than to take in the whole story and place it into the context of the world in which we live or in which it was written.

When speaking of her MFA students, she wrote: “they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born” (p. 10).  This quote and the following paragraph and a half struck me as I find myself more like her students.  I am definitely more in the context/deconstructionist cap of readers than the close reading camp she is encouraging.

While I may have learned  to read in a way that is different than her recommended method, I do think there are benefits to both. I am glad I picked up this book and can imagine visiting it again. Spending a few weeks with this author’s ideas and working through the examples and exercises she offers would be worth my time.

The fact she spends so little time on plot was also an obvious omission to me.  Regardless of the story to be told, the delivery of words is the most fundamental to this style of reading.  If you can choose the right words, to create the best sentence to form perfect paragraphs, your story will resonate with readers.

The Changeling by Victor La Valle

This book was tagged by multiple people as a HORROR book.  I did not find it to be such.  I can see some elements of horror with the supernatural climax, but through the majority of the book, it could easily have been any other story of loss, family and love.  I found this title on the Tournament of Book’s longlist this year.  There were quite a number of interesting titles found there and this was no exception.

I adored the story of Apollo.  From his early entrepreneurial escapades, to his love of hunting books, to his self-confident mantra right through to his full accepting his role as husband and father.  The hunt for his son took so much of the passion he had cultivated in earlier parts of his life and the challenges he faced were like nothing he had ever known.  Who could have known there were so many eerie things in New York?

While I did not love the magical, otherworldly aspects of this father’s search for his missing son, I did find the emotional path to ring true.  This was a cleverly written love story and one man’s understanding of the life-changing power of parenthood.

 

Book Summary:

One man’s thrilling journey through an enchanted world to find his wife, who has disappeared after seemingly committing an unforgiveable act of violence, from the award-winning author of the The Devil in Silver and Big Machine.

Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air.

Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love. (from GoodReads book page).