Death at La Fenice – Donna Leon

In my comments of The Temptation of Forgiveness (May 2018), it was noted this was the 27th Inspector Brunetti book. Death at La Fenice is the first, written in 1992. This origin story is notable for its initial definition of Brunetti as a crime investigator: he works alone without computers or fancy forensics, he listens and thinks. His warm loving family life is featured here as in all the Leon books; there is a simply glorious account of a Monopoly game with his wife and children. Thanks Amy, for this delightful read.

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver previously wrote the marvellous The Poisonwood Bible. Her new book has two story lines, about people who live in the same house in New Jersey: one family in 1874 and a contemporary family in 2012. Both stories involve dealing with hardships. In 2012, the issue is economic instability and insecurity (making me think of some classic Lionel Shriver books). In 1874, a biology teacher is conflicted by the controversy about Darwin versus traditional religion. The way Kingsolver links the alternating family stories is masterful and her knowledge of biology is exceptional. This is a very interesting worthwhile read.

The Mere Wife – Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife - Maria Dahvana HeadleyA strange story set in a dystopian future. A feminist story for sure – all the strong characters are women. And thus it is a book about motherhood but in a completely novel and somewhat bizarre fashion: two mothers in an American suburb fight to protect those that they love, so a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf with suburban monsters. Sorry to offer such cryptic comments but this is a hard book to categorize and characterize, but excellent speculative fiction.

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy - Patricia LockwoodThe author leaves her Mid-Western home at age 19 to be married but after 12 years, financial constraints forces her and her husband to return to the parental home. This gives her the opportunity to remember an unconventional upbringing: a flamboyant and charismatic guitar-playing father usually (un)dressed in only his underwear, who, by the way, is a Catholic Priest with a wife and 5 children (how can that be, you may ask?); and a long-suffering over-protective mother. There are some eye-popping childhood experiences like attending an anti-abortion rally at a very young age. Ms. Lockwood also takes this opportunity for reflection, producing a memoir that is often comic but also poignant. And for a published poet, her writing is wonderful such as this description of a church space: “The ceiling is low and the lights flicker fluorescently and emit an insect whine. The whole place smells like where coffee goes to die”. Highly recommended; thanks to Sarah’s friend Elizabeth for this recommendation.

The Woo Woo – Lindsay Wong

The Woo Woo - Lindsay WongCanada Reads contender. This is an extraordinary memoir about a Chinese-Canadian family in a Vancouver suburb. The Wong family is remarkably dysfunctional; Lindsay regularly received the following comments as a child: “you are fat, lazy and retarded”! She describes her upbringing with candour and does not flinch from castigating her own poor behaviour. Her mother is consumed by fears of demonic possession by malevolent ghosts, the woo-woo. This fear means that mental illness is treated as a woo-woo possession and thus is not treated except with ineffective exorcism attempts. And unfortunately there is a clear family history of untreated mental illness: a paranoid schizophrenic grandmother, a mother and aunt who may be bipolar. When Lindsay is afflicted by a rare medical condition (migraine-associated vestibulopathy), her woo-woo fears reappear. This is a disturbing story with harrowing details of abnormal psychology, interspersed with some splendid examples of comic relief. How does someone overcome such an upbringing? A challenging book, an uncomfortable read but worthwhile.

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible - Curtis SittenfeldThis delightful novel is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennett family lives in Cincinnati and Pemberly is an estate near San Francisco. The descriptions of the Bennett family antics are divine, especially Mrs. Bennett and the two youngest sisters, Lydia and Kitty. To underscore the modern context, a reality TV show plays a prominent role in the plot progression. Ms. Sittenfeld is a very fine writer (American Wife); her ability to construct vivid characters reminds me of Lionel Shriver. The shift from acute antipathy to love for Liz and Darcy is described wonderfully; this book is a real joy to read.

Dear Evelyn – Kathy Page

Dear Evelyn - Kathy PageSimply put, this is a great book: the story of Harry and Evelyn, their wartime marriage and subsequent long time together. Ms. Page writes with beautiful detail producing an intoxicating richness: learning poetry in school, the song of a thrush. Harry is accommodating, too accommodating. Evelyn is an intense wife and an even more intense mother. And slowly, their relationship disintegrates – nothing dramatic, just a slow progressive loss of civility, less forgiving, cumulative resentment, more impatience. Eventually Evelyn realizes that Harry is not the man she married. Overall, this is a thoughtful and wistful look at long relationship – highly recommended.