Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Henry, Himself by Stewart O'Nan.

The book is being released by Viking on April 9, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: A member of the greatest generation looks back on the loves and losses of his past and comes to treasure the present anew in this poignant and thoughtful new novel from a modern master

Stewart O'Nan is renowned for illuminating the unexpected grace of everyday life and the resilience of ordinary people with humor, intelligence, and compassion. In this prequel to the beloved Emily, Alone, he offers an unsentimental, moving life story of a twentieth-century everyman.

Soldier, son, lover, husband, breadwinner, churchgoer, Henry Maxwell has spent his whole life trying to live with honor. A native Pittsburgher and engineer, he's always believed in logic, sacrifice, and hard work. Now, seventy-five and retired, he feels the world has passed him by. It's 1998, the American century is ending, and nothing is simple anymore. His children are distant, their unhappiness a mystery. Only his wife Emily and dog Rufus stand by him. Once so confident, as Henry's strength and memory desert him, he weighs his dreams against his regrets and is left with questions he can't answer: Is he a good man? Has he done right by the people he loves? And with time running out, what, realistically, can he hope for?

Like Emily, Alone, Henry, Himself is a wry, warmhearted portrait of an American original who believes he's reached a dead end only to discover life is full of surprises.

Monday, March 18, 2019

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood
The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
Granny’s Got a Gun by Harper Lin

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Metis Beach by Claudine Bourbonnais
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf

Reviews posted this week:

Tiny Americans by Devin Murphy
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Rules of Surrender by Christina Dodd
The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handle
Oh, Tama! by Mieko Kanai
The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg
The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Exposure by Jean-Philippe Blondel
Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
Granny’s Got a Gun by Harper Lin

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Review: The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood

When I was little, I met a lifelong friend. My mom drove the two of us back and forth to Safety Town every day the summer before kindergarten. Her mom didn't drive us because she had infant triplets at home, two identical girls and a boy. The triplets' birth had caused rather a lot of excitement and it reached the point that they had to unlist their phone number so perfect strangers wouldn't call and wake the babies during their nap. I also remember that when the triplets were old enough, they would scoot their cribs across the nursery floor and climb in together, thus foiling the idea of having them sleep separately. Obviously, given the fact that I was only five and I still remember this, it was quite memorable. I can't even begin to imagine the circus that ensued when the Dionne quintuplets were born decades before the triplets I knew. But I don't have to envision it because Shelley Wood has done the research and fictionalized this miraculous and disturbing story in her new novel, The Quintland Sisters.

Emma Trimpany, a bilingual seventeen year old girl with a port wine stain on half of her face, is volunteered by her mother to attend to a birth with the local midwife with the hope of finding Emma a profession. It is 1934 and much of the world is in the grip of the Great Depression so Emma's parents want her to have a secure future, even if she isn't at all certain she wants to be a midwife. The birth she is called out to attend will change the trajectory of her entire life though. It's the unexpected birth of the five, tiny, and identical Dionne quints. The Dionnes, he a poor farmer and she a housewife, were already parents to five other children when the severely premature babies arrived. Keeping the five babies alive is touch and go for quite some time but their remarkable birth immediately captures the imagination of Canada, the US, and the world.

Told through Emma's journal entries, letters to her from those she meets in the course of her years as nurse to the Dionne girls, and newspaper articles celebrating the special little girls, the story, based on the real life Dionne quintuplets, is an infuriating and amazing one of celebrity, greed, exploitation, the bounds of medical ethics, and government overstep. The daily life of the infants, then babies, then toddlers and that of the fictional Emma are woven together easily. Emma remarks that her birthmark makes her invisible, which perfectly places her to see and hear things about the Dionne parents, Dr. Dafoe, the girls' doctor, and the staff at the government built Dafoe Hospital and Nursery that show the reader the tragedy of the strange upbringing of the quintuplets. Emma is quite young and impossibly naive when she witnesses the birth and begins to devote her life to the babies. She shows no concern that the Dionne parents are not allowed access to their own children except on the doctor's carefully charted schedule or that the children were quickly made wards of the Ontario government, seeing these outsiders as appropriate surrogate parents for the children, especially after witnessing the horrible behavior of Maman and Papa Dionne. As the quintuplets grow, Emma's duties change and circumstances force her to start to consider a life not lived in the service of her five precious girls.

Although the book spends a fair bit of time with the quintuplets, it is really Emma's story that is being told, from her first naive reluctance to a doting maternal feeling, to full maturity and control over her own future. As the story and Emma's understanding evolve, it is clear that there is a very seedy underside to the quints' situation. The outside world is not permitted to see any of the stress and strife roiling; they only see the carefully orchestrated marketing that allows them to believe that the girls live an idyllic life in their nursery home. Just as Emma becomes more attuned to the undercurrents, she also comes to see that there are no good guys in the equation either. Exploiting the children for money, even if it is just to keep them financially secure for life (and it's not just that), is no less odious when it is the father, the doctor, or the government doing it. The readers' sympathies swing from character to character, although the girls remain pitiable throughout. The treatment of the girls, being displayed as curiosities to the eager public, and the medical regimentation and testing, although not terribly detailed, were completely repugnant and the reader swings from interest in the story to distaste and back again. Wood has clearly done a lot of research and tried to address the abhorrent bits of the story with delicacy, using Emma's journalistic sensibilities to draw off some of the horribleness. But she has not flinched from portraying the sadness and uncertainty in these little girls' lives, the good impulses and bad, problematic or well meaning, and the impossible position the girls' celebrity and the world's fascination and well wishes cause. Historical fiction fans will enjoy the story, even it is Emma's story first, throughout, and last, rather than Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Marie, and Emilie's.

For more information about Shelley Wood and the book, check our her author website, like her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram or Twitter, look at the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins for making me pull this off my shelf sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Review and Book Club Questions: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Although I read fairly eclectically, I don't often read much in the science fiction or fantasy genres. When I do though, I tend to enjoy the books a lot. You'd think this would translate in me picking up more of them, but no. It means that people know I am reluctant with regards to the genre and only recommend I read the very best, the most thoughtful, the ones that will engage me the most even as they push my regular reading boundaries. Mary Robinette Kowal's novel The Calculating Stars, the first in the Lady Astronaut series, is one of these. Alternate history set in the 50s? Not my usual choice but it came so highly recommended that I knew I should give it a chance. Let's just say that 2 of my 3 year-round book clubs have read it now and this is very likely to be one of the three books for my summer book club as well.  I have the second novel on my shelves to read and was pleased to see that books 3 and 4 have been acquired (novelette 4.5 already exists and was, in fact, written first and won a Hugo to boot).

It's 1952 and physicist, mathematician Elma York and her engineer husband Nathaniel are on vacation in the Poconos when something catastrophic happens.  Initially they think a nuclear bomb has detonated.  Unable to return home to Washington DC, Elma, a former WWII pilot, flies them west to Wright-Patt Air Force base in Dayton, OH where they discover that an enormous meteorite has wiped out the entire East Coast, including the vast majority of the government as well as Elma's family. As if that's not terrible enough, the meteorite has put Earth on a collision course with an ecological disaster so vast that the need to get off this planet and find a viable way to colonize another planet before humanity's time runs out has become of utmost importance. There's no longer a race against other countries to get into space but a cooperative race for space and survival. Elma, who is incredibly brilliant and already worked for NASA before the meteorite, wants to be in the running to be an astronaut. But it's the 1950s and a woman's place is not in space, at least not according to the men around Elma, aside from her husband. As technologies are fast tracked and developed, Elma is right there in the fray. But she faces constant sexism and condescension, being metaphorically patted on the head and discounted until she is proven capable again and again.

Kowal has created a fascinating alternate history that doesn't dismiss the social issues of the 1950s but in fact highlights them in this subtly different world. Elma is a trailblazing character, one who is both impressive and strong but also fully human with weaknesses and doubts. Her push to be included, to realize her dream of being an astronaut, not only raises the question of discrimination because of gender but also finds her allied with women of color who have been doubly marginalized. Because of Elma's profession and ultimate goal to be a Lady Astronaut, there is definitely a good amount of math and science in the story but it isn't necessary to have a full understanding of either in order to enjoy the novel. The social issues and hurdles that Elma faces are really the main thrust here and they are big, complex issues indeed: sexism, racism, mental health, environmentalism. Kowal does a fantastic job raising these issues in the context of the 50s and 60s, using the attitudes of that time to showcase where we today have improved and where we haven't really come all that far. The narrative tension is not really about the outcome of Elma's quest as much as it is about the smaller, more personal pieces of her life (after all, the novelette was published first and its title gives away what has to occur in the preceding books) and it is this focus on the social and personal that makes this such a successful crossover novel. It's a well-researched and thought provoking novel and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Here are the questions I created for one of my book clubs since I found very little online that suited my purposes. They are in no particular order, just the order they occurred to me as I leafed back through the novel. This novel is eminently discussable and although it might be out of the comfort zone of many book clubs, it raises many worthy questions and can certainly sustain a book club discussion well past that first glass of wine. Feel free to borrow these for your book club as well.

Book Club Questions by Kristen:

Kowall says: “Science fiction and fantasy takes the real world and tips it over to the side so you can see all the gaps in between.” What are the ways you see this being true in this story?

Women in history have frequently been erased but books like Hidden Figures, The Radium Girls, Fly Girls, and other narrative non-fiction like them are starting to bring the amazing sidelined women back into full view. How does fiction like this also add to the narrative?

It’s the coming environmental crisis that drives the push to get into space in the book but when the crisis isn’t nearly as imminent as the public initially thinks, funding for space exploration and settlement could be in danger. How is this mirrored in our world today?

Elma is not only a woman but a Jewish woman and is familiar with both sexism and religious persecution as a result. Does this make it surprising how naïve she is, at least initially, about the treatment of African-Americans, from the government not evacuating survivors in largely African-American areas to the rejection of the best pilots for the astronaut program? How does she try to change her own responses to systemic prejudice?

Elma wants more than anything to have the chance to go into space and makes some pretty big sacrifices towards achieving her dream. What does she sacrifice? Are the sacrifices worth it? Have you ever made sacrifices of this magnitude in order to achieve a long-held dream?

Elma is a character of two extremes. She has crippling anxiety and panic attacks but she’s also fearless enough to excel as a pilot and push against boundaries to be an astronaut. How can these two polar opposites exist so easily in one character? Do these differences make her a more human character?

Nathaniel and Elma don’t have children, although the there is a suggestion that they may want them at some future date. Several other of the potential “lady astronauts” do have children. In fact, one cannot continue in the training program because she’s pregnant. What are the ethics involved in bringing children into a world that is set to self-destruct? Would you choose to have children in the circumstances? Why or why not?

At the end of the book, Elma discovers that her grandmother and great aunt had in fact survived the impact. Should she have searched harder for those she loved or was her lack of curiosity understandable given the widespread devastation? How does the idea of family play a part in the novel?

What does her faith mean to her, especially in the aftermath of the meteorite?

Discuss Elma’s contentious relationship with Parker. Is she right to compromise with him despite his horrible misogyny?

When Elma finally agrees to take Miltown, she keeps it a secret because she knows it could jeopardize her position in the space program. How have attitudes towards medications of this type and the conditions they treat changed over the years? Or have they stayed the same?

Elma and Nathaniel have a strong and equal marriage partnership that isn’t often seen in portrayals of the 1950s and Elma is clearly no June Cleaver. How does Nathaniel’s support of and belief in his wife help enable her to pursue her dreams? Does it feel realistic to you?

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Cheer Up Mr. Widdicombe by Evan James.

The book is being released by Atria on March 26, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: From a bright new voice in contemporary fiction comes a hilarious and sophisticated comedy of manners about a delightfully eccentric family and the absurd happenings that befall them during one frenzied summer at their home in the Pacific Northwest.

The inimitable—some might say incorrigible—Frank Widdicombe is suffering from a deep depression. Or so his wife, Carol, believes. But Carol is convinced that their new island home—Willowbrook Manor on the Puget Sound—is just the thing to cheer her husband up. And so begins a whirlwind summer as their house becomes the epicenter of multiple social dramas involving the family, their friends, and a host of new acquaintances.

The Widdicombes’ son, Christopher, is mourning a heartbreak after a year abroad in Italy. Their personal assistant, Michelle, begins a romance with preppy screenwriter Bradford, who also happens to be Frank’s tennis partner. Meanwhile, a local named Marvelous Matthews is hired to create a garden at the manor—and is elated to find Gracie Sloane, bewitching self-help author, in residence as well. When this alternately bumbling and clever cast of characters comes together, Willowbrook transforms into a circus of uncovered secrets, preposterous misunderstandings, and irrepressible passions.

Written in a singularly witty and satirical style, Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe is perfect for fans of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, Andrew Sean Greer's Less, and Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review: Tiny Americans by Devin Murphy

It seems to be a trend to use third person limited narration that rotates amongst two or more characters. It is less common, and perhaps a harder feat, to have those multiple points of view, all from first person narrative perspective. This means that each character's voice must be separate and distinct or the reader risks frustration and uncertainty about the "I" who is directing the story at that moment. In Tiny Americans, Devin Murphy's newest novel, he develops his characters beautifully, making the rotating first person narrative structure seem effortless in this poignant and well-written tale of a dysfunctional family and the roads they travel away from each other and then back again.

Opening in 1978 with Terrance Thurber's attempts to teach his children, Jamie, Lewis, and Connor, about the natural world while trying to get himself sober, the Thurber family's world will soon be altered and re-ordered forever by Terrance's eventual abandonment of home and family. Told in chapters alternating mainly between the 3 siblings, the novel examines how this seminal event made each of them who they are as adults, probes where each was broken by their family's dysfunction, and traces those broken echoes through their lives. It is an introspective study of family, searching, and forgiveness. Sadness leaks through the chapters, which span 40 years.

The narrative, primarily character driven, is chronological but spotted with intentional gaps.  The chunks of missing time don't seem important though as the characters are fully rounded by the moments the narrative does spend with each of them, connecting them to each other even when they themselves are not in contact. From the siblings' early explorations into the natural world to the contrasting ways they each cocoon themselves after their father's leaving, Murphy has written this very carefully, very precisely, and very beautifully. The novel is intricately plotted in its move from one sibling to the next sibling either a year or several years further on. It is a slow and deliberate, intimate, ultimately touching story of a family that has lost its way trying to find equilibrium and connection again, to repair themselves, and to find forgiveness.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed this past week are:

American Duchess by Karen Harper
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Metis Beach by Claudine Bourbonnais
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

Reviews posted this week:

American Duchess by Karen Harper

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Rules of Surrender by Christina Dodd
The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handle
Tiny Americans by Devin Murphy
Oh, Tama! by Mieko Kanai
The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg
The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Exposure by Jean-Philippe Blondel
Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent

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