Sunday, May 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I’ve been reading a string of “contemporary” novels lately, and thought this—Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau—was another, until I realized the setting is 1970s Baltimore. So it’s about fifty years ago, which puts it more into the historical realm, even though it feels contemporary to me. (The fourteen-year-old narrator refers to the back of the station wagon as “the wayback,” a nostalgic jolt. I don’t think anyone calls it that anymore.)

Mary Jane is from a straight-laced, uptight, Roland Park family. Her father is a lawyer who ignores her. Her mother is a housewife who keeps house rigidly, and who has taught Mary Jane how to cook with a military precision, as well as how to behave properly. When Mary Jane is asked to be a summer nanny for the five-year-old daughter of new neighbors, her mother agrees since the father is a doctor. (They don’t know he’s a psychiatrist. They are disturbed by the fact that he’s Jewish, but her mother decides his being a doctor makes up for that.)

Mary Jane is shocked and excited by her first day of work. The parents are relaxed to a fault; the house is a mess; there is no cooking or cleaning, No discipline. But the whole family is kind, warm, and loving and the precocious daughter is a delight. After a short time, the real reason they need a nanny is revealed. The couple will be hosting one of Dr. Cone’s patients, the rock star Jimmy, and his wife, the movie star/singer Sheba for the summer. Jimmy is a recovering heroin addict and Dr. Cone is his therapist. The couple needs to remain incognito, and Mary Jane is sworn to secrecy.

This is a heartwarming coming-of-age story. Mary Jane quickly learns that there is a wide world outside of her experience. She learns what parts of her upbringing to appreciate and what parts to shed. She is incredibly naive in many ways, but also wise beyond her years. The ending is a bit abrupt, with a rather pat reconciliation with her mother, but otherwise, it’s a fine look back at being a kid and growing up in the seventies.

Friday, May 7, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky

 I received this book from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Competitive Grieving by Nora Zelevansky is a funny contemporary novel that deals with a very unfunny topic.

Wren is a thirty-something grant writer for an international infrastructure NGO (Operation Sewage) whose dreams of being an investigative journalist petered out when she realized she needed a steady salary with benefits. She’s content with her life, which includes a small circle of good friends, a cat, an obsession with The Bachelor, a disappointing string of boyfriends, and a lifelong best-friendship with a successful TV star: Stewart Beasley. Although they see each other infrequently, and bicker frequently, the friendship (which began from birth) is solid. They are each other’s mainstays.

However, the novel opens with Wren receiving word of Stewart’s sudden unexpected death. 

Wren is in shock. She stumbles through the next few days, including the funeral, unable to cry. She finds herself helplessly trying to comfort people who she believes cannot be as devastated as she is. She copes by imagining funeral details for people she comes across, friends and strangers. (These imaginary funerals are bitingly funny.) However, Wren grows increasingly infuriated by the hangers-on, who claim a closer friendship to him than they have, who think they know Stewart better than she does. (Didn’t she and Stewart used to mock these people?)

Wren has always been intimidated by Stewart’s mother, so is surprised when the mother asks her to clean out Stewart’s apartment and sort through his belongings. To do this, she has to work with Stewart’s lawyer friend, George. (The one bright spot. George is a good guy.) If the task was not painful enough, the apartment is descended upon by those same, awful hangers-on, all claiming they are helping when, in fact, Wren sees them as simply trying to get a hold of Stewart’s stuff. As well as asserting their claims to close friendship with the deceased.

Wren’s defense is snark. She’s hurting and it makes her mean-spirited. Most of the time, though, she keeps her meanness in her head, or speaks it only to George, whose sense of humor matches hers. He doesn’t have the history with Stewart and the others so is able, at first, to cut them more slack. 

It’s all a bit overwhelming for Wren. The more she digs into Stewart’s life, the less she recognizes him. She starts wondering if she didn’t know her best friend well at all. 

The novel balances humor and sorrow, making for a bittersweet read, as Wren’s searching clarifies not only Stewart’s life, but her own.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: about grace by Anthony Doerr

 I dove into a backlist novel for my current read. about grace by Anthony Doerr was published in 2004, before All the Light We Cannot See, a WWII novel that I loved. This one is not a historical novel, but it wonderfully illustrates the author’s versatility.

The writing is perfect, drawing me into a story that is slowly paced yet nevertheless compelling. It has a premise that is otherwordly, but so richly detailed that it reads as believable. 

The protagonist, David Winkler, is a hydrologist–a scientist fascinated by water, particularly by snow. He leads a fairly isolated existence, guarding a bizarre secret: he sometimes dreams the future. He has seen horrible, fatal accidents as well as mundane daily mishaps in his dreams, then watched helplessly as the events occur. He foresees his own meeting, in a grocery store, of the woman he will eventually marry. And then, he dreams of his infant daughter’s death in a flash flood. Worse, he dreams of his desperate attempt to rescue her, an attempt that culminates with her drowning in his arms. When rain starts to fall in real life, and the sodden ground can take no more, he desperately tries to get his wife to run with him. Of course, she thinks he’s nuts. And when the dream begins to spool out in front of him in real life, he runs as far as he can, ending up on a remote Caribbean island, where he lives out the next twenty-five years of his life.

David lives hand-to-mouth, his life entwining with that of a refugee couple on the island, who have a young daughter of their own. She becomes something of a surrogate daughter for David, but he never forgets his wife and his own child, Grace. Although he wrote hundreds of letters to his wife, finally begging only to know if his daughter survived, he receives no answer to that most important question. Eventually, he is pulled back to the U.S. to try to find out.

It’s a strange odyssey. Back in 2004, locating a wife and daughter abandoned a quarter century prior was no simple matter, so it makes for an obsessive and dangerous trek. Again, not exactly credible and yet somehow the quest is realistic because of the confident presentation of the minute (and often scientific) details. The novel is a moving exploration of themes of love, family, forgiveness, and the strange workings of fate. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Childhood and Death in Victorian England by Sarah Seaton

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Childhood and Death in Victorian England
by Sarah Seaton is a depressing book. The author tabulates childhood deaths from inquests during the Victorian era, materials that she found largely online. There is a wealth of data here, but it is mostly presented as anecdotes and lists. These are sorted into chapters based on types of deaths (industrial accidents, other accidents, disease, poverty, child abuse and neglect, etc.) Some of the anecdotes are cursory. Others are detailed and lurid. There isn’t any statistical analysis and the discussion, in general, is superficial. There is no presentation of what childhood was like for Victorian children who weren’t murdered, so it gives a rather biased view of life in Victorian England. Overall, I was disappointed with the book, expecting more from it than a catalogue of inquest findings. But the details that are presented are vivid, and the book serves to demonstrate that crimes against children are not only a modern day scourge.