What would 2020 be without books? Impossible. For me, of course, this is true for any year. But is my gratitude for stories stronger this year? Without a doubt. Light and frothy stories, deeper and more thought-provoking tales, hero (and she-ro) journeys, they keep me reading.
And writing! Yes, amid the mind-boggling push to promote my latest novel, Home Place, I’ve begun a new book. (Actually two, but I’ve put one on hold till I can safely visit wineries and soak up some…um…ambience.) When I released Come Back three years ago, people kept asking ‘Will there be a sequel?’ At the time, I couldn’t see it. I felt I’d delivered my characters to their next jumping-off place and they could handle the rest without me. But the question kept coming up.
As with some – though not many – people I’ve encountered, I hoped I’d never meet Ben or Tammy again, even if theirs was perhaps the most up-in-the-air situation at the end of Come Back. But what about Shirley Hoffman, the young girl who felt so damaged, she created a Goth/Punk mask to keep her true self hidden? Hmm… Did I really want to leave her behind that mask? Or could I follow her path forward? Now, about a third of the way along that path, I see this girl reinventing herself, starting with her name. She’s Lee now – because that’s who she chooses to be, a new name for a new person. At the urging of Vi and her good friend Ruby – both recipients of their former employer’s generosity – Lee from small-town Iowa is taking on big-city life in all its glitter and grime. I can’t say more yet – because I don’t know more – except that the setting will feature large in Lee’s journey as it has in my two other novels. Like Lee, I was once a wide-eyed country girl transplanted to Washington DC, and I’ve ample reason to believe Lee will learn more than she ever imagined.
I’ve long been fascinated by the way a place shapes the people who live there. Who would I be if I grew up in Harlem, in the shadow of the massive redwoods of Northern California, among the dramatic pitch and drops of the Colorado mountains, the vast and empty plains of northwest Kansas, or the lush tropics of the Virgin Islands? I look for the ways landscape shapes humans in both my writing and reading as in these recent book adventures.
I’ve liked Sally Field’s work, but if this weren’t a book club pick, I never would have read her autobiography. I find myself more interested in the characters actors portray than I do in the actors themselves. And in fact, I found reading about Field’s life to be a slog, especially her odd and challenging childhood. I will say that my respect for her acting ability increased. That she could play light and frothy Gidget when reality was far darker? I found that impressive, as I did the trajectory of her growth as an actor. In the end, though, this felt like a book that was more important for Field to write than it was for me to read.
And now for something completely different. Who would I be if I were twenty in Japan just after WWII ended? Would I see marrying a Navy medic as my only hope, even if I were in love with a Japanese man from an untouchable caste? And who would I be after trailing my husband from Navy base to Navy base with little chance to make friends among other Navy wives? Would I turn to an instruction manual to learn how to adapt to being a radically different person than the one I was raised to be? Dilloway poses all these questions through Shoko and her half-Japanese daughter, and let me live these challenging questions vicariously through them. Intriguing!
I expect that Marian Schwartz has found an audience for this novel in the legions who want to be a successful writer. It’s why I bought this book. And made myself trudge all the way to the final scene. It wasn’t easy. Or for the faint-hearted writer. I have no doubt that Schwartz herself has attended and perhaps even taught at such a conference as she wrote about – and that she had less than a positive experience. Did I expect some back-biting and competition among writers? Sure. Was it a surprise that some attendees had little reason to hope for a publishing contract? Not at all. I wasn’t even shocked that participants might shack up for illicit conference sex or that predators were on the make. I was shocked at the amount of sex Schwartz pictured at such a conference. No, I don’t think Marian had a good experience at her writers’ conference. Read it as a cautionary tale, perhaps. But don’t expect it to be fun.
Whoever’s hosting usually picks the book for our ‘Really Readers Book Club’ (because we really do read the books!) monthly meetings. But since we’re meeting remotely these days, we opted not to make anyone feel like our ‘host’ this month. And when the choice of book came up, we shared a desire to read something funny and light in contrast to heavy and dark Covid concerns. The title of this one spoke to us for obvious reasons – and it happened to be just $.99 on Kindle the night we chose it. Tada! As with many books we discuss, some of us loved it, some were lukewarm, some found little to like. The village was probably my favorite character in this tale, because how can you go wrong with a British country village with its Shakespeare in the square, and annual ‘wellie wanging’ contest? We wanted light, we got light. I classify it as a ‘candy book’ with a small slice of meat and potatoes. The best candy I ever ate? No. But far from the worst – if worst could be a descriptor for candy.
This was candy too, candy of the ultra-rich. As a window to the 1%, this is a winner. If you care about the problems of people with more money than God. I confess those problems seemed rather superfluous to me. But as a happy recipient of arts and cultural programming the ultra-rich support, I appreciated the point made in the last section of this book – that such institutions could not exist without the work of the ‘ladies who lunch.’ One only has to observe the thank you’s on PBS News Hour or Masterpiece Theater productions to recognize that these folks with money do make a difference in our world. Who would I be if I’d been born, as these folks mostly were, with a whole chestful of silver spoons in my mouth?
It’s been a candy-kind of year, but still with that question who would I be…? Jimenez poses the question in terms of two career that demand two entirely different lifestyles. She’s a painter who requires solitude, he’s a musician whose career requires going on international tour. How will they make it work? I never doubted they would and perhaps they and their relationship were a little too wonderful. But there was enough fun – especially with the snarky best friend – to keep me engaged. And a great dog. I’m always a sucker for a great dog.
Lest you think all I ever read is candy, here’s evidence to the contrary with the best and most memorable of all the books I’ve read in the last two months. Sally Gunning has written a gem of a novel that opens a wide window on the life of women in the year 1761. Imagine a wife whose husband dies at sea, who now as a widow is legally entitled to a paltry one third of her late husband’s property – because of course, it was then inconceivable that she might have property of her own. Oh and by the way, who gets the other two-thirds? The closest male heir. In Lyddie Barry’s case, this male heir was her son-in-law, the kind of small-statured man who revels in keeping a thumb on all the women in his life. That type of man is scourge on any intelligent woman with spirit in any century – and sadly still exists. But in 1761? Is it any wonder that Lyddie opts to live in abject poverty in the designated one third of the house she shared with her late husband, the house that she managed and cared for all those many months when her husband had been at sea. In her quite reasonable quest to live her own life and to eat, she breaks her community’s rigid standards of behavior – in the eyes of men and women alike. Lyddie is a wonderful character and The Widow’s War is a remarkable read. And as I did more investigation, I learned that this is the first of a trilogy set in this same Cape Cod community. I’ve already put the second in the trilogy on my Christmas list and I look forward to another great read!
Are you making out your Christmas lists? Got gifts to buy? I’ll encourage you to buy the best solace and entertainment available on the planet – books! Look for a local and/or independent author whose gratitude will surely emanate from the pages of any book you purchase. And don’t forget to write your honest review on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever your online shopping takes you. Like sharing your favorite reads with the folks on your list, reviews help others find the books of authors whose stories you enjoy. We thank you in advance.