Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: The Secret of Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs

The Secret of the Nightingale Palace tells the story of Anna and her crusty, proper grandmother Goldie - their relationship and each of their pasts. They have had a special relationship since Anna was a young girl but have recently been estranged; Goldie is not one to hold her tongue and when she made it clear she did not feel Anna's husband was the best choice for her, Anna was deeply hurt and removed her grandmother from her life. Five years later and following the death of her husband from leukemia, Anna receives a call from Goldie asking if she will accompany her cross country from NY to San Francisco. Much to her own surprise, Anna decides to drive her grandmother cross country and the two set out on a trip where they each reveal a lot about themselves to the other but also learn a lot about themselves in the process. The reader is taken along for that ride and is treated to a bit of historical fiction in the process.

Goldie lives a well appointed life in New York City and in Palm Beach surrounded by beautiful artwork, fine meals at top restaurants and people to cater to all her needs. She seems born to this life. The truth is she was raised in Memphis, TN in a large, poor family and had to leave school in eighth grade. Her humble beginnings and an intense desire to leave them behind has driven many decisions throughout her life from her move from Memphis to San Francisco to choice of husband who eventually moved her to New York. Anna knows surprisingly little about her Grandmother's history - there have been references to how Goldie suffered as a young girl but she has been fairly circumspect about her life as a young adult in San Francisco.

In much the same way, Goldie doesn't really know her granddaughter - she especially doesn't fully appreciate Anna's suffering since the loss of her husband. She is a young widow and that is devastating but she is also haunted by the fact that she had begun to doubt whether she had made a mistake in marrying Ford before he became sick. Everyone views her as a grieving widow but she struggles with her conflicted feelings about Ford and it is a dark secret which she hides. Keeping this secret walls her off emotionally from friends and family and leaves Anna feeling misunderstood. The trip cross country with Goldie will test the wall she has built.

Much of the book is about Goldie and Anna and the book alternates between each of their stories and then their shared experience on the cross country trip. However, considering the cover and the title of the book, it seems incomplete not to mention another component of this book. While living in San Francisco, Goldie meets Mayumi, a Japanese American woman. Goldie and Mayumi become close friends and Goldie is welcomed by Mayumi's family. She is fascinated by their Japanese culture and is honored to take part in a tea ceremony with them. Mayumi and her brother, Henry, jokingly refer to their home as "Nightingale Palace" in reference to the nightingale floors in a Shogun's house which would make a noise like birds singing when people walked on the floor warning them on an intruder. Henry says:
 Mayumi and I started calling our house "The Nightingale Palace" because our parents are like that. They gave up everything to in order to leave Japan, but this beautiful life they have created here is completely focused on protecting our family, protecting our culture.
That beautiful life is shattered when the Nakamura's are moved to an internment camp during the war and the culture they have worked so hard to preserve and honor becomes a reason to strip the family of their rights and exile them.

My Thoughts
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace offers a sweeping tale with extremely well drawn characters. Goldie is especially memorable and I liked reading about her past and how it drove the many decisions she made throughout her life. Anna provides a counterpoint to Goldie - she is quiet and accommodating where Goldie is demanding and strong willed.  The Nakamura's bring the element of historical fiction to the book as the readers are transported to San Francisco during the war when Japantown was emptied and families moved into internment camps. They also introduce an immigrant theme and the feeling of being an outsider in the country in which you have chosen to live or which your parents have chosen to live. I thoroughly enjoyed this book - the characters are still with me.

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher.

You can read other reviews from those on the TLC Book Tour here

Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

As a young girl, Chicky Starr was quite content with her life on the rugged West coast of Ireland and was prepared to live out a quiet life in Stoneybridge. When she meets a dashing young man visiting from America, Chicky's plans change and she heads to the US to make a life with her new love. When she ultimately returns to Stoneybridge, Chicky is an independent woman and no longer satisfied to just live a careful life in the small town. She bravely decides to buy the house belonging to the elderly Sheedy sisters and converts it in a guest house. In an effort to bring business to the new endeavor and also celebrate its launch, Chicky offers a week in winter at Stone House. When the lucky guests arrive, readers are treated to learning about each of their stories. In her final book, Maeve Binchy has once again created a delightful cast of characters - I didn't want that A Week in Winter to end!

A Week in Winter starts with Chicky's story and builds out from there. It moves on to Chicky's best friend from childhood and her troubled son, Rigger. Chicky takes Rigger on to work at Stone House and slowly turns his life around. Chicky's niece, Orla, reluctantly returns to Stoneybridge from London where she fled to escape small town life in the West of Ireland. She is at a crossroads in her young life and, despite not wanting to come home, she recognizes the opportunity with her Aunt as a chance to start over. She brings modern sensibilities to the old Stone House with Facebook and Twitter promotions. Like those working at Stone House, the guests are also looking for rejuvenation at the house - even if some are not aware that they are really looking for it. Each has their own unique circumstances which drew them to this week long vacation. For example, Lillian and her daughter in law to be, Winnie, have been thrown together by their love for John and must find a way to get along for his sake. A stern headmaster is sent to Stone House as a present for her retirement but even the breathtaking, rugged beauty of the West can't penetrate her tough exterior. The book reads like a set of interconnected short stories with Chicky and her Stone House as the anchor and consistent thread.

I definitely recommend spending time in the West of Ireland with Chicky and her assortment of family, friends and guests. Author Maeve Binchy completed this book just a few weeks before her death at age 72 in July 2012. Reading her final book was bittersweet - her books are always comfort reads for me and this one was no exception but I was plagued by disappointment realizing this would her last book. I don't generally re-read books but I may need to make an exception with Maeve Binchy.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: The Good House by Ann Leary

Hildy Good has lived in Wendover, MA her entire life - she knows virtually all the town's residents either from growing up with them or because she sold them their house in the town as the local realtor. She is a fixture of the town - she is wise and exudes a rugged New England practicality in all she does but she also has her flaws. Her struggles with alcohol, although well concealed, gradually undermine her otherwise straightforward, reliable reputation. The Good House by Ann Leary presents a coastal, provincial New England town replete with the accompanying gossip and its long standing, flawed resident, Hildy Good. There is humor but also the sobering reality of a alcoholic in denial.

 Hildy Good's family has been in New England since the early days post the Mayflower - one of her ancestors was tried during the Salem Witch Trials. She is a successful realtor who sells the increasingly pricey homes in this small New England town. Hildy has almost a sixth sense about homes and what they say about their owners - with just a quick home tour she can see the secrets its owners are hiding and detect what they would like people to think of them even if it is untrue. She uses this insight when she meets Rebecca McAllister, her husband and their two boys. Hildy sells them a mansion in Wendover but Rebecca is having problems acclimating to the town and wonders whether she and her husband have made a mistake to move there from Boston. Hildy befriends Rebecca and, although she believes she sees Rebecca's flaws, she is drawn to the woman and becomes her confidant. Rebecca is intense and her behavior becomes erratic as she starts an affair with a local, married man. Hildy didn't see this erratic behavior coming and is rattled at the failure of her insight to understand Rebecca.

 For someone with so much insight into others including their motivations and secrets, Hildy remarkably lacks insight into herself and her own flaws. A recovering alcoholic who never believed she really had a problem but went to rehab at the behest of her adult daughters, Hildy can't see how her addiction drives her own behavior and clouds her judgement. Slowly, she begins to cross the boundaries she had set for herself post rehab - first no drinking at all, then no drinking in public, then no drinking hard liquor and only wine. Gradually, she loses the control she had on her drinking and she begins to unravel. She is defiant in the face of this unraveling insisting that she is one of the most successful businesswomen in the area and that she doesn't have a problem. Even her friendship with Rebecca is cloaked in her alcoholism - when she first shared a drink with Rebecca she realized how much she missed having friends and each night she looked forward to sharing bottles of wine with her new friend. Despite her alarm at Rebecca's irrational behavior, Hildy wants to continue drinking with her friend and knows Rebecca knows how much she drinks even though those closest to Hildy believes she is a teetotaler. Her alcoholism has entangled her in in the gossip of the town and she can't extract herself.  

My Thoughts
 The Good House offers an interesting peek into a small, close-knit New England town and its established resident Hildy Good. In addition to the insight into the town and its residents, we also get real insight into Hildy and the demons she fights despite her calm, practical exterior. Hildy is the quintessential unreliable narrator - her disease begets contradictions in her behaviors which make her unreliable. At first, I was a little taken aback by Hildy's contradictions - there is scene in the latter third of the book where Hildy takes an action which betrays a trust - I was stunned and actually felt a little let down by Hildy. Until that point, she seemed solid, though flawed, but after this scene I began to question her values. I realize now that it makes her a more interesting character and illuminates how her disease controls her. This book is funny at times but also serious in that it deals with the downward spiral of a woman addicted to alcohol. If you enjoy books with flawed protagonists and where the setting is a character itself, pick up The Good House .

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Salon: Take Time to Dance

The Sunday

Superbowl Sunday! What are your plans? I am looking forward to a party at a friend's place later today - mostly looking forward to drinks, good food and some quality time with friends. I am not a big football fan but love to get in on the action on Superbowl Sunday. Of course, I will need to be home in time for Downton Abbey - I missed last week's episode but have seen spoilers around all week. Even though I know the outcome, I still can't wait to see the episode. Downton vs. Superbowl? Downton wins!  Apparently, I am not the only one asking the Downton vs. Superbowl question - check out this pic posted to Facebook by blogger Grown and Flown.


 Have YOU Danced Today? 

 A friend on Facebook shared the video below last week and it really gave me pause. Jennifer Goodman Linn was diagnosed with sarcoma in her thirties and battled the disease on her terms. The video below was taken on her 40th birthday and she was celebrating having reached that milestone  - throughout her illness, she had gained an appreciation for every year and didn't dread the milestone birthday as many do.  Unfortunately, she lost her battle with the disease later that year.  While alive, she started Cycle for Survival which raises money for rare cancer research (rare diseases make up 50% of cancers including pancreatic and metastatic melanoma) and the event is now one of the most successful events of its kind.

I turn 40 this year and sometimes am a little melancholic about getting older - this video reminds me to cherish all these days and to celebrate the milestone.  Thank you Jennifer for the reminder!  For every share of the video, Jennifer's widow will donate $1 to Cycle for Survival and he will donate $5 for everyone that posts their own dancing video.

As you know, I host The Immigrant Stories Challenge because I have a special interest in immigrant stories in literature.  I am the child of immigrants and can relate to many of the stories of struggle and of the attempts by their children to live between two worlds - the old and the new. There is a lot of rhetoric about immigration in the news these days as Congress puts forward plans to address immigration.  I thought this article (My Grandfather The Outlaw) by Frank Bruni hit the perfect note - I didn't focus on the political position being advocated but on the story of struggle and ultimate success of his Grandfather.  This is the story of immigration I choose to focus on a midst the debate.

On the Blog
This week I posted a collage of favorite winter book covers  - based on the comments, I think most people prefer beach covers! Ha!  Maybe the collage would be more popular during the dig days of August!

Yesterday, I posted my review of American Dervish by Ayad Aktar on audio. Based on some twitter chat, it seems I was not alone in how much I loved this book.  Highly recommend!

Hope you have a great Sunday and week!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Audiobook Review: American Dervish by Ayad Aktar

American Dervish (read by author, 9 hours, 28 minutes) is a coming of age novel layered with themes of religious faith and awakening, marital strife, racism and immigration. Despite the many themes, the author expertly weaves them together and wraps them in a story with a compelling young protagonist and the result is an immensely readable (in this case, listenable) book which I won't soon forget.

Hayat Shah is the son of Pakistani parents and lives with them in Wisconsin. His parents marriage is troubled and Hayat is often his mother's confidant as she shares her frustration with his father's dismissal of her - she is educated and gave up much to marry her husband which further deepens her resentment of the marriage which does not satisfy her. Hayat's father is a successful doctor who eschews the Muslim community of which everyone expects him to be a part.  He sees all religion as the root of many of the world's problems and his scientific mind questions much of what the faithful believe without question.  Hayat's mother wants to adhere more to her faith and culture than her husband - at one point, she forbids Hayat from attending a local carnival because it is sponsored by the Church. As a result of his parents' conflicted attitudes towards religion, Hayat is bereft of faith - he has not real familiarity with the Muslim religion.

When Hayat's mother's friend, Mina, arrives to live with them from Pakistan, she breathes life into the Shah home and an awakening begins. Mina is very religious and sets about teaching Hayat about the Muslim faith.  Hayat, enraptured by this introduction to his faith and Mina's beauty, soaks up these teachings eagerly. Mina doesn't get caught up in some of the more archane rules of the religion and teaches Hayat the fundamentals and emphasizes that "doing right" is what is most important.

Mina, meanwhile, has her own problems to deal with - she has left Pakistan with her young son after her husband divorced her through an emissary.  A man came to her bedside after she had given birth to her son and told her that her husband repeated Talaq three times thereby divorcing her. Mina is a modern, educated woman living in a family and country with outdated ideals and a view of women as secondary to men.  This conflict manifests itself in an eating disorder for Mina and an apparent inability for her to find happiness.  These patterns repeat themselves even when she comes to the United States.

The conflicting views of faith, culture and a woman's role in her family and society all come to a head in a variety of scenes throughout the book.  The scenes are powerful and nuanced  - there is no obvious right and wrong even though the issues are so divisive.  Hayat is the ideal protagonist for these conflicts because he looks at this issues with less nuance than the adults around him and thereby offers a very clear view of the issues.

As often happens with a book that blew me away, I am not sure that I am giving it justice - American Dervish  is beautifully written and deals with difficult issues without hitting you over the head with a point of view.  As an audiobook, it was a pleasure to listen to - read by the author, the characters' voices were distinct from each other and the accents were executed perfectly. I found myself standing inside the door after my walk home just listening and unable to stop.  This will definitely be in my Best of list for 2013!