December 2023 Book Marks
The shopping is almost done, the tree is up and three out of four kids will be with us this holiday, plus the bonus round…a new son-in-law! This season can feel so varied for each of us, depending on where we happen to be in life. The holidays act like a magnifying glass for the range of emotions we are experiencing; love, loss, joy, isolation, fear, hope, anticipation, and everything in between. It’s hard to turn on the news right now and feel optimistic about the planet. Suffering and war are ever-present, a heavy weight most days.
And yet, I am always reminded of the importance of pausing and reflecting in life. This is one of those times when the world slows down enough to take stock. It offers us a chance to search for the good and the hopeful, however slim that view might be some days.
May all of us feel joy this holiday season. And while peace on earth may be an elusive wish for 2024, the goal is to never stop reaching for hope. And in that vein, here are some good reads to help you relax and transport you to another place. Thank you for reading.
Absolution by Alice McDermott
McDermott’s prose makes you feel the sights, smells and sounds of early 1960’s Saigon, the French Colonial city on the cusp of the Vietnam War. But the focus of this story is on the ex-pat wives, their inner workings and complexities of their traditional lives in the homes and behind the walls of their compounds. Tricia is a timid newlywed, married to a rising attorney at navy intelligence. Charlene is a corporate spouse and mother, the popular girl who bosses the others around, and yet both are “helpmeets” to their traditional husbands. The women form an unlikely friendship as they set out to do charitable works for the poor. Their stories unfold through letters written sixty years later, when, after meeting an aging Vietnam veteran, Charlene’s daughter, reaches out to Tricia. Together, they look back at the time in Saigon and reflect on how their own lives were shaped and burdened by the same kinds of unintended consequences that unfolded from America’s role in Southeast Asia. It’s a story about grace, obligation, sacrifice, and the desire for absolution in a broken world.
Welcome Home, Stranger by Kate Christensen
Rachel hasn’t been home to Portland, Maine in years. She’s built her life on her own, running from her working-class family to become a free spirit, award-winning environmental journalist in DC. Now divorced and on the edge of losing her job, she must return home when her sister calls to tell her that her emotionally unstable and alcoholic mother is dead. Her younger sister, married to a local millionaire, seems to have it all figured out. But as Rachel spends time back home, putting her mother’s life in order, she begins to see everything in a different light, from her alcoholic brother-in-law to her former lover, now married, but still pining for her. But it’s the ghost of her mother, who has haunted and shaped everything about her life, that lies at the heart of this intricate novel, exploring family, mothers and daughters and the choices we make.
Meet the Benedettos by Katie Cotugno
Imagine what would happen if the Kardashians were transported into a modern-day Pride and Prejudice. That mash up is this novel, with a few twists. The five Benedetto sisters live in LA, (Calabasas, no less) and were once famous for being famous. Now they are more like washed up has-beens, with their reality show relegated to an obscure streaming channel as they show up at openings, parties and push out content as C-list influencers. Their father is the “Meatball King,” who had a once successful string of national franchises, but now he’s in financial trouble. When handsome A-list movie star Charlie Bingley and his actor beast-friend Will Darcy (yes, that’s right) rent a house in the neighborhood, sparks fly with the Benedetto sisters. Sweet June falls for Charlie, much to her mother’s delight, but its fiery Lily who ostensibly clashes with Will at every turn, despite the fact they are molten lava together. This raucous, witty and fun read is the best distraction for a rainy day or a long plane ride.
Ana Turns by Lisa Gornick
Ana Koehl is in a dead-end marriage with a stoner anesthesiologist husband who she hasn’t had sex in almost a decade. She’s also having an affair with a journalist … oh… and she is turning 60. In this clever novel, which spans the 24 hours of her “turning,” Ana makes the decision she can no longer let her life move her along the slipstream without taking control. Narrated by Ana, but with points of view from her brother, mother, “star-chitect” father and her adult child, she takes stock of her life and begins to determine what it is that she wants.
Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
I grabbed the paperback edition of this book at an airport and was reminded of what a wonderful job Jodi Picoult does of researching and writing her books, often weaving back and forth between narrators and perspectives. Olivia McAfee is a bee-keeper who has ended up back on the family farm after fleeing an abusive marriage with her son, Asher. Lily Campanello is also running from a secret. She and her Mom have ended up in the same small town and both young people fall madly in love. The story takes a turn when Lily is found dead in her home and Asher is accused of killing her. This is a story of suspense, the cost of secrets, hate and violence and it’s laced with some wonderful facts about bees and honey. I still can’t get the image of how drones mate with the Queen Bee out of my head.
The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff
There are countless novels about “the Heroes Journey,” but Groff gives it new legs with an imagined tale of courage, bravery and perseverance in this tightly written novel. Instead of the male protagonist, she writes about a servant girl, escaping from a horrible pestilence and servitude as she flees a colonial settlement in the middle of the night. It’s bone cold and the land is frozen. Being a young woman, danger and peril lurk at every turn, but using her wits and determination, she faces the wilderness step by step and encounters things that will fundamentally change her. For everyone who needs to see a girl as a strong hero and not a victim, this is the book for you.
Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe
Walk around Manhattan with your eyes open and you see the name “Astor” on everything from subway stations to buildings and entire sections of Queens. And if you’re a fan of the HBO show, “The Gilded Age,” you’ve been watching the social battle between the Astors and Vanderbilts at the turn of the century, when it was all about new and old money. The Astors were among the first families of Manhattan and their reign continued for generations. It began in 1783 when German butcher John Jacob Astor arrived in America and built a fortune first through beaver-trapping and then the ruthless acquisition of land. At one point, they were the largest tenement slum lords, making millions as people lived in squalor. The book moves from the first generation through the death of an Astor on the Titanic, the building of the Waldorf Astoria hotel and on to the final famous society doyenne, Brooke Astor, who died at 102, with her son jailed for his misbehavior while battling for her fortune.
The Other Mothers by Katherine Faulkner
Sometimes mother’s groups can be deadly… especially when you get in with the wrong crowd. Natasha “Tash” is hoping for some playdates between her son Finn and the children of the posh women she is befriending who live in the big houses on North London’s tree-lined streets. Tash is quickly swept into their lavish lifestyle, over-spending on credit cards behind her young physician husband’s back in order to keep up. When budget cuts push her out of her job at the newspaper, she struggles to make extra money with freelance articles and stumbles on the story of a young woman who has died mysteriously while swimming. Or did she? As the tale becomes more tangled, the group and their husbands become suspicious. When another girl turns up dead, things take a dark turn.