Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Morningside by Tea Obreht

The Morningside
by Tea Obreht
304 pages
Published March 2024 by Random House Publishing House
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
There’s the world you can see. And then there’s the one you can’t. Welcome to the Morningside.

After being expelled from their ancestral home in a not-so-distant future, Silvia and her mother finally settle at the Morningside, a crumbling luxury tower in a place called Island City where Silvia’s aunt Ena serves as the superintendent. Silvia feels unmoored in her new life because her mother has been so diligently secretive about their family’s past, and because the once-vibrant city where she lives is now half-underwater. Silvia knows almost nothing about the place where she was born and spent her early years, nor does she fully understand why she and her mother had to leave. But in Ena there is an opening: a person willing to give the young girl glimpses into the folktales of her demolished homeland, a place of natural beauty and communal spirit that is lacking in Silvia’s lonely and impoverished reality.

Enchanted by Ena’s stories, Silvia begins seeing the world with magical possibilities and becomes obsessed with the mysterious older woman who lives in the penthouse of the Morningside. Bezi Duras is an enigma to everyone in the building: She has her own elevator entrance and leaves only to go out at night and walk her three massive hounds, often not returning until the early morning. Silvia’s mission to unravel the truth about this woman’s life, and her own haunted past, may end up costing her everything.

My Thoughts: 
This is the third book by Obreht I've read (and reviewed) and, as much as I enjoyed the other two, this was by far my favorite of her books. With each book, Obreht explores new territory and new time periods. Inland was set in the American West's past; The Tiger's Wife was set in the Balkans in more or less present day. The Morningside takes us to an unknown land, some time in the future. 

Climate change has wrecked havoc on the planet, wars have taken a further toll. We never know exactly where on Earth Silvia and her mother have finally settled (it might be New York City); it's not particularly relevant, other than to that they have traveled a great distance from a land called Back Home. Which isn't to say that the setting doesn't play an important role in the story - it's, in fact, crucial for Obreht to give readers a full impression of the landscape and the way that rising waters have impacted Island City. Much of what we learn of Island City is in stories told to The Dispatcher, a renegade radio program that allows listeners to tell stories of the city as they knew it and the city as it is now. 

Silvia's mother has told her very little about why they are constantly moving or anything about their family, other than that Silvia has an aunt, Ena. When the Repopulation Program enables them to move to Island City and live in the Morningside, where Ena is superintendent, Ena opens a door to the past and the mystical. Because of Ena's stories (particularly that the three dogs Bezi takes for a walk every evening are actually men), Silvia comes to believe that Bezi Duras might actually be a Vila, a nature spirit capable of vengeful acts when angered. 

Because Silvia can't be enrolled in school, she has a lot of time on her hands. Some of it is spent helping her mother. A great deal of it is spent exploring and trying to determine the truth about Bezi. Along the way, she is helped by Lewis May, a man who used to the be superintendent of the building and makes an arrangement with Silvia whereby she is given a key to the elevator to Bezi's penthouse floor. Even after their deal is completed, May remains a constant in Silvia's life. 

One day a new family moves into The Morningside, one with a mysterious father who isn't much seen but will come to play a big part in Silvia's future, and a daughter who becomes Silvia's only friend and the driving force behind moving Silvia along in learning the truth about Bezi. 

I wouldn't want to be a bookseller or a librarian trying to figure out where to shelve The Morningside; it is equal parts science-fiction (cli-fi, as some are calling it), fairy tale, and dystopian novel. It has an element of magic that I surprisingly loved and some wonderfully unique characters and situations. I wasn't always sure what to make of it. But I loved that I had no idea where the story was going. Even the ending, which ties things up more neatly than I often like, isn't nearly a happily-ever-after and comes with something extra that makes me rethink things right up to the end of the book. Utterly original and one of my favorites of the year. 

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Life: It Goes On - July 14

Happy, sunny (here at least) Sunday! It's been a bit of a tough week but things are looking up and the sunshine is definitely helping (even if it is hot out). I read somewhere recently that people with ADHD tend to use parentheses in their writing more because their minds are always going down side tracks. So that's my excuse for that first sentence...and all of the other sentences on this blog that have a ridiculously high occurrence of parentheses! 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished Before We Were Innocent and am about 2/3 of the way through Kelly Corrigan's The Middle Place. Next up is the One World, One Book selection for 2024, Twilight Territory. My dad has started listening to it as well so it will be fun for the two of us to talk about it. 

Watched: A whole lot of HGTV and Magnolia Network. 

Read: Tell Me Everything by Elizabeth Strout. Now finishing up this month's book club selection, The Last Mrs. Parrish

Made: Ham sliders and roast beef sliders with King's Hawaiian rolls. What else? No recollection whatsoever. Clearly that meal planning and prepping I talked about doing a few weeks ago and not manifested. 

Enjoyed: My sister and her husband are here this weekend. Friday night we did something that we've never done before - the ladies went off to eat one place and the guys off to another place. I surprised my sister by inviting one of her dear friends here to join us and it was such a cathartic, relaxing and fun evening. I left and was disappointed I had not thought to take a picture of the three of us. Then I remembered that it was good to have been so in the moment that it never occurred to me to pull out my phone. Well, except for the ten minutes or so when all three of us had our phones out while we were talking books, making recommendations, and adding things to our library holds! 


This Week I’m:  

Planning: No choice now but to get to working on Mini-him's dresser. He and Miss C have found a new apartment and will be moving to a place where they will finally have room for it again. 

Thinking About: A friend died this week of lung cancer. She's been battling it for over three years. Logic completely left me when it came to her diagnosis and ongoing setbacks. I just knew that she would be the person to beat the odds so it's hit me harder than I would have expected to find out that she wasn't. 

Feeling: After months of being mentally exhausted, I find myself finally starting to have the energy to get myself up and moving. I've accomplished so much in the past couple of weeks that has needed to be done for so long. It feels good.  

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday. 

Quote of the week: “There are never enough 'I love you's.” - Lenny Bruce

*This week's connection between the books I've reviewed is only that they are books that I read through Netgalley. 

Thursday, July 11, 2024

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House
by Kathleen Grissom 
384 pages
Published February 2010 by Atria Books

Publisher's Summary: 
Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.

In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.

Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.

My Thoughts: 
This is a book that's been on my to-be-read list for years. When I was creating my book club's reading list for 2024, I looked at that list for ideas and noted that this one was also on a lot of lists of best books for book clubs. Before I get into my thoughts on this book, let me tell you two things that may sway your opinion of the book. Number one - every one in my book club really liked this book. Number two - it was a great book for a discussion. That may be, in part, due to my opinions about the book, which pushed people to have to defend it. 
  • It felt quite melodramatic and was made more so because everything terrible that could possibly go wrong did. To the point that it lost any tension - I already knew what was going to happen. 
  • Too many stereotypes for me - the evil overseer (a la Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabin), the mamee who mothers both her own children and the those in the big house, the damsel in distress lady of the house. 
  • Entirely too many cases of miscommunication that lead to tragedies for years. 
  • I felt like Grissom missed the boat with Marshall. Fair enough, so many terrible things happened to him growing up - an absent father, sexual abuse at the hands of a man his father defended, his mother's lack of caring for him and idolization of his sister, an attachment to a man who lead him astray, a growing hatred of the enslaved people, and alcoholism. One reviewer suggested the book would have been better if Marshall had been an attentive, loving husband to Lavinia and then an evil man with Belle and the other blacks...a Jekyll/Hyde. I definitely agree. We never see anything redeeming about him after a point. 
  • I honestly just want to slap Lavinia again and again. Yes, she was young when she came to the plantation; yes, she was white but raised by and lived with the enslaved people. They were her family. Still, she never really seemed to grasp the division between the two. Then there was a very important packet she saw delivered and then completely forgot about for nearly the entire book; the marriage to Marshall, a man she had already known to have a fiery temper; and her belief that Belle's son's father was a man she might have ended up with had it not been for this and her inability to see what was plain to see just by looking at the boy. 
My book club worked hard to change my mind; but, in the end, I felt like this book missed its very real potential. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The House of Lincoln by Nancy Horan

The House of Lincoln
by Nancy Horan
Read by Sarah Welborn
10 hours, 30 minutes
Published June 2023 by Sourcebooks

Publisher's Summary: 
Nancy Horan returns with a sweeping historical novel, which tells the story of Abraham Lincoln's ascendance from rumpled lawyer to U.S. president to the Great Emancipator through the eyes of a young asylum-seeker who arrives in Lincoln's home of Springfield from Madeira, Portugal.

Showing intelligence beyond society's expectations, fourteen-year-old Ana Ferreira lands a job in the Lincoln household assisting Mary Lincoln with their boys and with the hostess duties borne by the wife of a rising political star. Ana bears witness to the evolution of Lincoln's views on equality and the Union and observes in full complexity the psyche and pain of his bold, polarizing wife, Mary.

Along with her African American friend Cal, Ana encounters the presence of the underground railroad in town and experiences personally how slavery is tearing apart her adopted country. Culminating in an eyewitness account of the little-known Springfield race riot of 1908, The House of Lincoln takes listeners on a journey through the historic changes that reshaped America and that continue to reverberate today.

My Thoughts: 
In all honesty, I didn't even read the summary of this book before I checked it out from the library. I should have. In an effort to get it "read," I chose the audiobook version. I shouldn't have. 

What Didn't Work For Me:
  • Sarah Welborn's narration so grated on my nerves that I raised the speed of the audiobook to get through it sooner. For me it felt so stilted. 
  • The story telling felt disjointed to me and I was unclear much of the time as to whose story this is. Is it the Lincolns, as told through Ana's eyes? If so, why didn't Horan have her travel with them to Washington? Is it the blacks and how Lincoln ended up effecting their lives? If so, why wasn't the lead character Cal? 
  • Once we really got into the story of political Lincoln, the book felt like it was racing along out of control as Horan got to her ending when things slowed back down to get to the part of the story most readers will be unfamiliar with. There wasn't much new material here for me, except that ending. 
What I Liked: 
  • The ending of the book and the look at the Springfield race riot of 1908. It was not only a great learning experience for me but a great reminder that the enslaved people may have been emancipated, but that didn't change the way all too many people felt about them. In fact, it may have made life worse for some as whites became fearful of what emancipation might mean for them. 
  • Learning the immigrant experience of the Portuguese Protestants, through Ana's family. 
  • Horan working in the Douglass/Lincoln debates which allowed for a comparison to present day politics. 
While this wasn't necessarily the book for me (although reading it in print might have helped), I do still believe that there would be a lot here for book clubs to discuss. Horan's Loving Frank was one of my book clubs reads the year it came out and it led to one of our best ever discussions. Certainly, there are a lot of readers who might not read as much (or have been raised with history ever-present, as I was) and who might find a lot to learn from this book.