You Were Always Mom’s Favorite by Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen’s newest book explores the sister dynamic in family relationships. As one of three sisters, it was a relationship she knew a lot about. She also interviewed over 100 sisters of all ages and stages in life to discover more about the double edged sword that is sisterhood.  In this “combination of closeness and competition,” she says “the one constant was comparison.”

When siblings talk, every conversation is weighted by what has gone before. This fosters special closeness but also means that a comment that seems innocuous to an outsider can cause pain that would appear to be unreasonably exaggerated.

As a linguist, Tannen’s expertise is in how language shapes relationships.  Sisters are different from brothers in that they are often the glue keeping a family together – organizing get-togethers to celebrate birthdays, holidays and family reunions. They also foster closer relationships with the male members of the family. Because their conversational style is more personal and emotional, they allow men to be more open.

Tannen reads the audiobook version of You Were Always Mom’s Favorite which seems appropriate when she closes with very personal anecdotes from her own family. She says, “Having a sister adds an extra image in the mirror. Understanding who you are means discovering who you are in relation to her.”

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen

Idella and Avis are The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay; the girls learned early on to fend for themselves.  In 1916, their family is barely scraping out a living on a rocky potato farm in New Brunswick, when their mother unexpectantly dies in childbirth. The girls, ages seven and five, are left in the care of an overwhelmed father who turns to alcohol for comfort.  Though Dad tries to create a semblance of normalcy by hiring  a series of French Canadian housegirls, none stay for long, and after a few years, he ships the girls across the border for a short stay at a boarding school in Maine.

Idella grows up to be the responsible older sister — always caring for someone.  First, it’s for her father, after he is accidentally shot when hunting deer out of season;  later, she cares for her very contrary mother-in-law.  On the other hand, Avis is the wild one — a free spirit who likes to drink and who runs through men,  but often pays painful consequences for her impulsive choices, including a stint in prison.  Still, all is not heartbreak in this story of family ties and remarkable resilience — there are equal doses of humor and hilarity as well.

What I found most intriguing about this book is that the author, Beverly Jensen, died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, never having published a word of her writing.   So how did this book come to be?  Well, a group of supporters gathered around her work, initially getting one of the chapters of this book published as an award-winning short story.  Amazingly, the stories all fit together with convicing continuity and the author’s voice comes through loud and clear, even beyond the grave.  Every writer should have such friends.

The Cookbook Collector

The title of The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is indicative of the book’s style. The cookbooks in question aren’t introduced until well into the story, and is just one of several plotlines. The book has been compared to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility but I get a Dicken’s vibe, myself. There is an abundance of characters; many of them quite eccentric. There is also a sense that, in this book and for these characters, morality is an actual consideration in how they conduct themselves and the choices they make.

Two sisters are contrasts in lifestyle and general philosophy. Jess, the younger sister, is a free spirit, environmentalist, and perennial student.  Emily is the CEO of a computer startup company (this being the late ’90’s and San Francisco).

Romantic tension abounds between Jess and her boss, the owner of a used and rare book store; they argue about everything –  books, authors and whether books should be collected and owned or shared (via the public library system!). The dialogue between these two is witty and erudite, but not pompous.

Book lovers, library users and patrons of book stores, will all find something in The Cookbook Collector to chew on.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

shanghai-girls1In 1937 Shanghai, Pearl and her sister May are living a glamorous, sophisticated life, modeling as “beautiful girls” for the painters of magazine covers and calendar pages. Their sheltered, privileged world comes to a shattering halt when their Father loses everything and he must sell them into marriage. At first they are able to escape this fate, but when the war begins and the Japanese attack their beloved city, they must flee for their lives.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See follows the harrowing journey that the sisters must undertake – the hardship, the pain and the betrayals as they try to escape the Japanese and find a safe haven first in Hong Kong, then in San Francisco. Throughout it all the sisters remain each others staunchest supporters through good times and bad, through arranged marriages, lost children and oppressive discrimination. Their triumph is that, not only do they emerge from their trials as stronger people, they come through it together.

See also wrote the wildly popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, also set in China, and has done extensive research to fill her story with authentic detail. Her story gives us unique views of the past – the Japanese invasion of China and the suffering of the Chinese people at their conquerors hands, the discrimination against the Chinese in America and the Red Scare fear of communist threat that created suspicion against the Chinese in America in the 1950s.

While the trails and suffering that Pearl and May must endure sometimes seem almost endless, the author has left us with a cliffhanger ending, promising a possible sequel and future hope for the beautiful girls from Shanghai.

House of Daughters by Sarah-Kate Lynch

house-of-daughters1Ready for an escape this winter? How about a little literary trip to a champagne vineyard in France? Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And yes, I realize it still gets cold there, but you have to admit, the idea of it is pretty romantic.

In House of Daughters by Sarah-Kate Lynch, the story revolves around Clementine, the daughter and rightful heir to the House of Peine, a vineyard that has been in the family for generations. However, after her father dies, Clementine soon discovers that she must share her inheritance with a half-sister she’s only met once and with another she didn’t even know existed! Needless to say, all is not happy in the Peine household. The sisters struggle not only with each other but with trying to keep the vineyard afloat financially. Secrets, scandals and long lost loves all keep this story bubbly and upbeat, but robust enough to savor long into the night. Share a toast to sisterhood and celebrate this read with your own bottle of champagne. C’est la vie!