You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

You Are One of ThemElliott Holt’s first book, You Are One of Them, is the story of friendship and of the momentous changes in Russia in the 90’s.

The first part of the book is about the friendship of Sarah and Jennifer, 10-year-olds in Cold War Washington D.C. Like the real-life Samantha Smith, Sarah writes to Yuri Andropov, asking for peace between the two nations. Jennifer decides to write a letter as well, and her’s is the one that attracts the attention of Andropov and the world media.

The friendship doesn’t survive and neither does Jennifer, who dies in a plane crash.

The second part of the book is about Sarah’s time in Moscow just after the Soviet Union breaks up. She tries to track down Jennifer, after receiving a letter saying that Jennifer is alive and living in Russia.

The book has a lot to recommend it – the depiction of the life in the 80’s in suburban Washington, D.C., and the adolescent friendship of the two girls. Holt does an excellent job in painting a picture of what it was like for Muscovites and “New Russians” as they desperately try to adapt to consumerism in a chaotic new market economy.

A couple things are bothersome, though. Sarah is rudely unrelenting in her criticism of the way things are done in Russian business and social life. And the ending, to me, is disappointing. To say more would be a spoiler.

 

 

I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a story about love and devotion and friendship, about hanging on and believing in yourself and trusting the right people. It’s about how we touch other lives, often without knowing. It’s a family drama and a survival story and a romance rolled into one can’t-put-down story.

When 17-year-old Sam meets Emily, his life is a mess. Worse than a mess – it’s hopeless. His abusive father snatched Sam and his little brother Riddle from their backyard a decade ago. Since then, Sam has protected Riddle (who is sickly and no longer talks), takes care of him and absorbs most of the punishment their father hands out. They aren’t allowed to go to school – Sam teaches himself as best he can – how to swim, how to play the guitar – and keeps up with the world by reading magazines discarded in dumpsters. They move constantly, one step ahead of the law, and making friends is impossible.

Emily Bell is mortified about singing a solo at church. It doesn’t matter that her father is a professor of music, she’s a terrible singer. Her Dad insists, she manages to muddle through the song (badly off-key) by locking eyes with the mysterious boy sitting at the very back pew. They make a connection and she gets through her ordeal – barely. The minute she’s finished she rushes outside to be sick. That’s where the mysterious boy (Sam) finds her, holds her hair and tells her it’s going to be ok.

It takes some persistence, but Emily finds Sam again and they become friends. Sam is wary and is protective of Riddle, and tries to shield Emily from his background but gradually, through kindness and attention, Sam becomes part of Emily’s family. Emily’s parents take to the boys – her father discovers that Sam is a musical prodigy and encourages his talent and her mother recognizes that Riddle needs to be treated for asthma and that both boys are desperate for love and family. For the first time in a long time, Sam and Riddle have some hope.

It all comes crashing down when their father discovers that the boys have made friends and he once again snatches them away and goes on the run. The story of the boys struggle to survive their harsh new reality and Emily and her parents search for them will keep you up reading very late at night – Sloan masterfully creates and maintains an almost unbearable tension throughout the book. (I have to make a confession. About two thirds of the way through, I skipped ahead to the end to find out what happened. The tension was just too high, the need to know just too strong. Then I went back and read the part I’d missed!) The characters she creates are amazing – complex and believable. I especially liked the various relationships – especially between Riddle and Emily’s Mom and between Sam and Riddle. They (and the whole book) show that love comes in all sizes and shapes and can save you no matter how bad things look. Read this book – you won’t be disappointed.

 

A Cup of Friendship by Deborah Rodriguez

Remember Kabul Beauty School, the memoir by Deborah Rodriguez?  Well, the author is back, this time with a fictional account which seems likely to have been based, at least in part, upon her own life experience as co-owner of a coffee house in Kabul.  At least that’s my bet, as the dialogue and place description both have an authentic feel to it.

I enjoyed A Cup of Friendship on several levels.  First of all, it’s just a good story.  It’s got solid characterization with some humor and some romance to help balance out the more tragic episodes.  It’s also a reflection about relationships and lasting friendships with women of different faiths and cultures.   Finally, I think it helps those of us living in the West to better understand Afghan culture.  We may not agree with the way women are treated there, but knowing some of the “why” behind it certainly helps.

As one might expect, being an American woman running a business in Kabul these days is not the easiest job in the world.   However, the main character, Sunny, runs her coffee shop amidst bombs going off nearby, and still manages to create a welcoming haven for many ex-patriots.  She also finds a way to do some good in her little corner of the world.  This is a “feel good” book!

It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Overwhelmed by mounting pressures from school, home and life, 16-year-old Craig contemplates suicide. Planning to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, at the last minute he detours to the local mental health clinic hoping for a simple solution. What he finds instead, after a minimum five-day stay, is that there are no simple answers, just the support of family and friends and the belief in your own true self.

Starring Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a charming, witty and heartfelt movie. Craig finds himself surrounded – and accepted – by a colorful cast of characters. His fellow patients are all struggling with their own personal demons but pull together and support each other, sometimes in surprising ways. There are a lot of funny scenes and quiet moments, and there are heartbreaking insights. It’s a story not so much about mental illness as it’s about finding a way to live again.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The real challenge for this blog post is how to go about describing the plot of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro without spoiling the plot twist.  Because really, I can’t even say what the book is about without spoiling a surprising fact that you’ll discover about a quarter of the way into it.  So  I’ll do this as cryptically as possible.

The story is being told by Kathy, who is now in her 30s and is reflecting on her childhood at an English boarding school called Hailsham.  The students, completely isolated from the outside world, are all….special.  All I will say is that they have a unique origin and purpose, and they are constantly told that their well-being is very important.  After reconnecting with her two best friends  from Hailsham, Ruth and Tommy, Kathy looks back on her time at the school and how it prepared her (and didn’t prepare her) for what was to come in her future.

I know, that’s very cryptic.  I will say that it’s a dystopian novel with some sci-fi elements, but don’t let that turn you off if you’re not a sci-fi fan.  It’s really an interesting and thought-provoking story about friendship and what it means to grow up knowing your future is set in a certain way.  Kazuo Ishiguro writes in a very conversational tone, which I enjoyed because I felt as though I was having a conversation with Kathy, personally hearing all her old tales from Hailsham.  It is particularly a good book for a book club, because it opens up a lot of discussion possibilities on a controversial subject matter.

The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel

How do you define family? Is it just the people you’re related to by blood or by marriage? Or does it include the friends that stand by you through thick and thin? What about the people that leave but come back? And what about those that live on only in your memory? In a world that is constantly redefining itself, who do you call your family?

Despite their differences Janey, Jill and Katie become best friends, bound together by the common stresses of working as post-grad students in Seattle in The Atlas of Love. When Jill becomes pregnant and then is abandoned by the baby’s father, the three form a makeshift family and come together to raise Atlas themselves. Juggling teaching schedules, classes and child care at first seems just possible if everything goes smoothly, but of course, life is not smooth or predictable. Katie falls in love and decides to marry, Jill becomes depressed and begins to drift away and Janey struggles to hold everything together by herself. Then Atlas’ absent father returns and the little family is thrown into chaos. The resulting turmoil of anger, fear, concern and yes, love means that while almost everything is different, one thing stays the same – family. Family that is no longer defined by rigid rules, but is flexible enough to encompass all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, all drawn to one common goal – to love and support each other no matter what.

Narrated in Janey’s wry voice, this book moves from laugh-out-loud funny to infuriating to sweet and sad as these young women define and redefine their own improvised family.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

christmasmemory

If you’re like me and associate Truman Capote primarily with In Cold Blood, you might be pleasantly surprised to find something totally different in his “tiny gem of a short story,” A Christmas Memory.  It fits the bill if you are looking for something meaningful yet humorous, and something nostalgic but not excessively sentimental.

The story is largely autobiographical, a classic memoir of Capote’s childhood in rural Alabama in the early 1930’s.  Until he was ten, Capote lived with distant relatives and this is his recollection (written in the present tense) of the time spent with a favorite cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, when he was about seven.  Sook is a simple, older woman (perhaps mid-sixties) and is herself much like a child.  Together they make fruitcakes — some for friends and neighbors,  some to be shipped away.  They count the money they have saved over the year (somewhere between $12.73 and $13.00) and decide they have enough to purchase all the ingredients, including a quart of “sinful” whiskey.  Afterwards, they get a little tipsy on the leftover moonshine.  They also chop down their own Christmas tree and end up making kites for each other as presents.  The kleenex part comes at the end when Buddy is sent away to military school, never to see Sook again.

The Davenport Library also has a DVD version of this story, starring Patty Duke as Sook.  Unchararcteristically, the movie actually has more character development than what is actually revealed in the sparse print version.  However, the same message still comes through in both — that friendship and caring for each other, no matter the gap in years — never goes out of style.

Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Maloy

every last cuckooEvery Last Cuckoo is a tender book which will pull at your heartstrings.  The protagonist is a 75 year old woman, Sarah Lucas, who is still very much in love with her husband, Charles.  When Charles dies unexpectedly (yes, even 80 year olds die unexpectedly) Sarah is left alone in her rural Vermont home, tentatively dealing with her grief and loss.  Yet she is not alone for long.  First, her rebellious granddaughter, Lottie, seeks refuge with Sarah away from her overbearing parents.  Lottie is quickly joined by a few of her friends with family problems of their own.

Others in the community begin to look to Sarah to shelter those in need — to harbor the young mother who has been beaten by her husband — to temporarily house those without heat — to offer quiet sanctuary for an author returned from Israel.  Each finds their way to Sarah’s doorstep and each contributes to the growing household in their own way.  Sarah finds time to take long walks in the woods and to reflect upon her life.  In doing so, the reader also comes to a better understanding of what it means to live, albeit imperfectly, a full and gracious life.  This is an easy read with book club questions included at the end.

My Favorite Banned Book — To Kill a Mockingbird

to kill mockingbirdMy favorite banned book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I loved this book; I loved the movie.  I can still picture (in black and white) Gregory Peck portaying the consummate Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, wiping his brow in the hot, segregated courtroom while his adoring daughter Scout, looks on from the balcony.

Set in a small Southern town in Alabama during the Depression, the book follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother Jem and their father, Atticus, who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.  Thus, the book covers many issues, but because it is told through the eyes of young Scout, it never comes off as judgmental or preachy.

I could never understand why someone would not want others to read this book.  It won the Pulitzer Prise, it’s been translated into more than forty languages and was voted the best novel of the twentieth century.  If somehow you got through school without reading this book, now is the time to do so.  Come to think of it, it may be about time for me to read it again — it’s that good!

Pay It Forward

pay it forwardRemember the movie, Pay It Forward (2000) with Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt?  The one in which the teacher (Spacey) encourages his students to make the world a better place?  By the way, in case you don’t know — as I didn’t — the movie is actually based on a book with the same title by Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Anyway, in the book or the movie,  one of his students actually comes up with a plausible plan: to pay it forward.  In other words, if someone does you a kind deed, rather than paying it back, you pay it forward, to three new people.

Well, recently, my husband and I were recipients of a kind deed.  We were out shopping for replacement steps to our hot tub; after 16 years, its wooden stairs had finally disintegrated. We looked at building them ourselves (cost: $50 plus, not to mention time and effort).  Another store sold cedar steps for $100 — a bit pricey.  At our final stop, the salesperson was showing us floor samples in hard plastic.  Another customer spoke up and said, “I have three of those at home; if you want one, just follow me home and you can have one.”  At first, we weren’t certain he was serious and we didn’t want to appear cheap.  But even the sales guy offered, “Well, you can’t beat a deal like that!”  So, we followed him home, got the steps and offered to pay him.  His reply: “Just do something nice for someone else.”  Translation: pay it forward.

So, I’m still looking for ways to do just that.  Though I’m not quite ready to donate a kidney, I am hoping some random act of kindness will make itself blatantly obvious.  In the meantime, if you know of a need — please let me know.  I need to forward some payments.