Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Canterbury Sisters by Kimberly Wright

The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright
Published May 2015 by Gallery Books
Source: NetGalley

Publisher's Summary:
In the vein of Jojo Moyes and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a warm and touching novel about a woman who embarks on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral after losing her mother, sharing life lessons—in the best Chaucer tradition—with eight other women along the way.

Che Milan’s life is falling apart. Not only has her longtime lover abruptly dumped her, but her eccentric, demanding mother has recently died. When an urn of ashes arrives, along with a note reminding Che of a half-forgotten promise to take her mother to Canterbury, Che finds herself reluctantly undertaking a pilgrimage.

Within days she joins a group of women who are walking the sixty miles from London to the shrine of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, reputed to be the site of miracles. In the best Chaucer tradition, the women swap stories as they walk, each vying to see who can best describe true love. Che, who is a perfectionist and workaholic, loses her cell phone at the first stop and is forced to slow down and really notice the world around her, perhaps for the first time in years.

Through her adventures along the trail, Che finds herself opening up to new possibilities in life and discovers that the miracles of Canterbury can take surprising forms.

My Thoughts:
I wouldn't normally include, in the publisher's summary, the publisher's comparison to other authors but in this case, I thought it was worth discussing both for the author's they mentioned and the author they didn't.

Cheryl Strayed loaded up a backpack and took off on a journey entirely on her own. The group of women Che joins is being lead by an experienced guide with a following van which carries most of their belongings and scheduled stops along the way at places to sleep and eat. It hardly seems like the same thing. For me, Moyes' greatest strengths are her strong characters and her ability to make her readers empathize with them. It's something easier done with a smaller cast of characters than Wright is wrangling in The Canterbury Sisters. Still, it can be done, which brings me to the author I would have chosen as a comparison, Erica Bauermeister. Bauermeister's books always pull together a group of diverse characters and then allows each of them time to tell their own stories, just as Wright has done here.

In The Canterbury Sisters, Wright appears to be less interested in pulling the reader into the lives of each of the women Che travels with than in using each of their tales as a way for Che to learn and grow. I often found myself forgetting who was who in the group, in fact, despite the fact that I really enjoyed many of their stories. And Che? I gotta say that there were times I thought she was a catty, judgmental bitch. Then there were times I really felt for her as she struggled with finding herself alone at nearly fifty years old, still living under the shadow of her larger-than-life mother and addict father. This being the kind of story it is, I don't think I'm spoiling anything for anyone when I say that it takes the entirety of the journey for Che to learn to appreciate each of the women for who they are and to sympathize with them for what they have been through and for her to understand what she needs to do to move forward with her life.

The Canterbury Sisters is not the kind of story I'd generally pick up but Wright comes highly recommended. Know I know why. There were so many places where I really thought the writing was remarkable, where it really spoke to me and those passages alone would have made the book worth reading.
"I hadn't counted on there being so much difference between going and gone. Going is busy. Going has tasks involved with it - meeting with doctors and social workers, snaking your way through the system to find an empty bed in a decent place, cashing out mutual funds, and putting furniture in storage. Going demands many visits and at times, during them, you begin to think these Judas thoughts. You think that it would be better for everyone if she weren't still here, so trapped and suffering, and you imagine that when you get that final call, it will be a relief.
And it is, at least at first. But after a week or so, life goes back to what people call normal, and only then do you start to realize that going was easier than gone. It's only then that you face the final silent emptiness that's at the heart of every human death, and it's not just a matter of the extra hours that suddenly appear in the day, strangely difficult to fill, it's also that there's nowhere to put the mental energy that circles around the space your mother once occupied."
"Most families have their official stories, I'd imagine, and they tell them to each other over and over, each repetition reassuring both the speaker and the listeners that the world is an understandable place. I suppose you could even argue that the very act of telling a story is an act of faith, for it advances the belief that life truly has a beginning, middle and end. The belief that we're all headed somewhere, that the seemingly random events of our lives mean something, that tomorrow will be more than just a repeat of yesterday, all over again."
"I've always thought the greatest skill a wife can possess is the ability to judiciously forget certain things, to just delete them right out of her brain at will. Because that's what we've been talking about this whole time, haven't we? The difficulties women have in understanding we never really see them, really know them, even after years of love and marriage?"
Perhaps the most unique part of Wright's writing was her ability to acknowledge when she was falling back on the stereotypes:
"No doubt you're way ahead of me on all of this. No doubt you've seen what was coming form the minute you learned that the letter was sent from an office."
And, of course, most readers will have. But Wright's willingness to admit to it makes it is a rarity.
I enjoyed the literary references Wright included throughout the novel, from the expected Chaucer tales to the myth of Psyche and Eros, the tale of Sleeping Beauty and the story of Romeo and Juliet. Throw in a little history of Canterbury and history of the pilgrims to the cathedral for added interest. Wright says, in the acknowledgments, that she actually traveled the Canterbury trail and it shows in the details she has included.

Although the set up of the book is nothing new, there is plenty here to recommend the book and I enjoyed it.

**The quotes I've included come from an unfinished copy of the book and may not appear the same in the finished book.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson

Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson
Published April 2015 by Other Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Elijah, seven years old, is covered in scars and has a history of disruptive behavior. Taken away from his birth mother, a Nigerian immigrant in England, Elijah is moved from one foster parent to the next before finding a home with Nikki and her husband, Obi.

Nikki believes that she and Obi are strong enough to accept Elijah’s difficulties—and that being white will not affect her ability to raise a black son. They care deeply for Elijah and, in spite of his demons, he begins to settle into this loving family. But as Nikki and Obi learn more about their child’s tragic past, they face challenges that threaten to rock the fragile peace they’ve established, challenges that could prove disastrous.

My Thoughts:
"Being dead is like living inside a dream: only some things are real, but you don't know which ones, It is so dark when I wake up that I feel dead again. I have to move my fingers and toes to know I am still alive. I died once, the first night I'd been away from Mama. I was so dead then that I couldn't move anything. Not even one toe."
Little Elijah as been through so much in his seven years, things that are slowly reveled through his time with Nikki and Obi and through letters written by his birth mother. As Elijah slowly begins to relax into his life with Nikki and Obi (helped by his new cousin who is also his first real friend and Obi's father who is also Nigerian), Nikki and Obi must resolve lingering issues that begin to threaten the stability Elijah so desperately needs.

Watson fills her second novel with love and even some humor as she explores family, race, mental health, cultural differences, and the child protective system. She writes knowingly about the ways in which that system has both cared for and harmed Elijah further and the difficulties in taking on a child burdened with an abusive history.
"There are three places where women are kings. One is in that moment after birth, when generations of women stir up inside woman's body and the whole world shakes and nature reminds us who is king. The second place is Nigeria, where - you remember - a woman, a prostitute even, was so respected she was made king. And in heaven women must be kings, for in heaven all the wrongs of earth are righted."
For Elijah, one would certainly hope so.

It's a difficult book to read but so beautifully written and so incredibly emotional. I could not put it down but then I did not want it to end. Where Women Are Kings will stay with me for a long time.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Life: It Goes On - May 24

Part of the walk up from the
dock to the house last
Happy Memorial Day weekend! Everyone loving the idea of this not being the last day of your weekend? I know I am! Spent yesterday on all things graduation party - between going to parties and baking/frosting cupcakes for my niece's party, my day was full. Today we'll be heading off to the very tiny town where The Big Guy's parents are are buried to put flowers on graves then working in some stops along the way for visits with cousins and friends. As much fun as the weekend has been, I'll be happy to have another day to put my feet up for a bit to do some reading!

This Week I'm:

Listening To: Mostly podcasts - some RadioLab, Slate's Book Club and new-to-me Nerdettes (thanks, Heather of Capricious Reader!). Friday I finally got back to The Story of Beautiful Girl and finished a disc of that. I think I'm going to try to work in podcasts on a regular basis from now on
- so many great ones but I don't want to give up books, either!

Watching: Honestly, I can't really remember much of what we watched. The finale of The Voice (disappointed with that result) but I did not stay up to watch Letterman's final show. I never have been much of a fan.

Reading: I'm finishing up The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright today then I'm pondering Game of Thrones or something nonfiction. Or maybe something that is actually on my reading plan for the summer. Lucky it's a flexible plan because I'm not sure what my mood will be tomorrow!

Not sure why the gold
ones look so lumpy!
Making: Did I mention cupcakes? A double batch of red velvet cupcakes and then white cupcakes frosted in the three colors of my niece's sorority. I may have overdone it. Anyone want to come pick up a container cupcakes? I have a few left over.

Planning: Some fun with my girlfriends this weekend - our guys are going camping and they actually trust us to behave!

Grateful for: Two long weekends in a row. It's been a great way to recharge the battery. I'm going to have the hardest time when I have to work five days in a row again.

The birthday boy
Enjoying: Thinking about last weekend - we had so much fun being with my whole family at a house on the Lake of the Ozarks celebrating my dad's 80th birthday. Boat rides, tubing, time in the sun, hours of talking and laughter, too much fun and perhaps a bit too much alcohol. As close as my family is, the cousins haven't really had this much time together in a long time and really had the chance to forge deeper bonds which was fun to see.

Feeling: A bit exhausted.

Looking forward to: Sunshine? Surely we'll have a string of sunny days again sometime. I am so over wearing sweaters to the end of the school year! While carrying an umbrella. Seriously. Over it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hearts West - A Mini Review

Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier by Chris Enns
Published February 2005 by TwoDot
Source: this is my mom's copy

Publisher's Summary:
Complete with actual advertisements from both women seeking husbands and males seeking brides, New York Times bestselling book Hearts West includes twelve stories of courageous mail order brides and their exploits. Some were fortunate enough to marry good men and live happily ever after; still others found themselves in desperate situations that robbed them of their youth and sometimes their lives.

Desperate to strike it rich during the Gold Rush, men sacrificed many creature comforts. Only after they arrived did some of them realize how much they missed female companionship.

One way for men living on the frontier to meet women was through subscriptions to heart-and-hand clubs. The men received newspapers with information, and sometimes photographs, about women, with whom they corresponded. Eventually, a man might convince a woman to join him in the West, and in matrimony. Social status, political connections, money, companionship, or security were often considered more than love in these arrangements.

My Thoughts:
My mom read and reviewed this one for me in 2009. At the time I wrote "I know this one will be coming home with me..." Five years later, I finally got around to reading it as part of the Dewey's Readathon. It was a perfect choice for that - short to begin with and something I could read a chapter or two of then split off and read something different for a while.

I won't get into too much detail because it's already been reviewed on this blog but I wanted to point out a couple of things I found interesting about the stories in this book as they relate to present day relationships.

First there was this notice, warning men of the seductive powers of women and advising them that any marriage entered into based on misrepresentation by the woman would be null and void if the man so desired. Goodness, gracious! If men were warned off of any woman who has false hair (extensions, coloring), cosmetics paints, and artificial bosoms (padded bras, implants), were would most of the women of today be?!

About clubs and the newspapers in the summary - there were entire newspapers then (as there still are today) where men and women alike put notices hoping to find a mate. Think modern day eharmony or, heaven help us, Tinder. Isn't it interesting to think that 150 years later, people still have
trouble finding a mate? Although most of eharmony's clients probably aren't looking at making a 3000 mile journey around the cape of South America, so desperate are they to escape their current circumstances.

And they were desperate back in the late 19th-century. In the west there were almost no women and in the east women were eager for a chance to escape poverty or widowhood. There were plenty of stories in the book about couples who, after all of the travel, were so disappointed with the reality of their chosen partners that they didn't even get married or whose marriages didn't last. But, according to the book, the National Archive Department in Washington believes that mail-order brides produced a high percentage of permanent marriages. Enns says the reason cited is that "the advertisements were candid and direct in their explanations of exactly what was wanted and expected from a prospective spouse."
"I am fat, fair, and 48, 5 feet high. Am a No. 1 lady, well fixed with no encumbrance: am in business in city, but want a partner who lives in the West. Want an energetic man that has some means, not under 40 years of age and weight not less than 180. Of good habits. A Christian gentlemen preferred."
Well, there you go - can't get much more direct than that! Maybe those folks seeking a mate today should heed that advice!