Friday, February 24, 2017

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next Door explores the rivalry between two long-time residents of Katterijn, an upscale South African Estate community. Hortensia, an 84-year-old, highly successful, black textile designer whose husband has died after a long illness, is originally from Barbados by way of England. Marion, a white, 81-year-old, ground-breaking architect, is a recent widow left penniless by her husband’s debts. She’s preparing to sell her home and doesn’t how she’ll survive afterward. The women have lived next to each other for twenty years and their dislike of one another is legendary. “It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.”

Hortensia and Marion ruminate on their past lives and how they got to their present circumstances. Left unsettled by revelations in her husband’s will, Hortensia decides to remodel her home. Marion was the architect who designed Hortensia’s house. It was her first completed work and it brought her recognition as an architect. She’d wanted to buy it herself, but circumstances denied her wish twice. Marion rules the homeowner’s committee of their estate so an unexpected claim for restitution by descendants of slaves formerly quartered at Katterijn, weighs on her. She’s a woman who sees objects clearly but is unable or unwilling to see what’s actually happening around her.

An accident with a crane at the beginning of the remodeling leaves Marion’s house in shambles and Hortensia with a debilitating injury. Hortensia detests the nurses sent to care for her and in a series of ingenious scenes sends them all running. Thus the two women, one homeless, and one in need of an adult to stay with her are thrown together. Hortensia plans no interaction with Marion and both retain their dislike for each other until circumstances intervene. Additional plot twists best encountered by the reader, move the narrative toward resolution. 

The exquisite writing and the fact that these are not “Hallmark card” women separate this from formulaic fiction about women of a certain age. Hortensia and Marion have more in common with literature’s curmudgeonly men than with the sweet octogenarians sipping tea often portrayed in novels. The Woman Next Door exhibits charm, but it is charm laced with acid as seen in a description of Hortensia. “She got good at chopping off the legs of people with no knife, only words.” 

The novel is unique in its portrait of the racist system that empowered Marion and her ilk. Years previously, Marion’s twelve-year-old granddaughter, Lara, asked why there were two different kinds of toilet paper in the house. Marion explained that two-ply was more expensive and “considering her station in life, it seemed perfectly reasonable to expect Agnes (the black housekeeper) to manage with one-ply.” Later Marian asks Agnes why she keeps her toilet rolls in the main pantry and Agnes explains that they aren’t hers. “Ma’am, I buy my own.”
“Why do you buy your own?” Marion asked. Whatever could have changed? She’d been working there for decades and understood the rules.
Agnes, wiping down the speckled marble kitchen counter, shrugged. “I needed something better, Ma’am.”
One day, soon after this conversation, when Agnes was distracted with laundry, Marion stole into the granny-flat to inspect the bathroom. There was the offending toilet paper. Three-ply. It turned her cheeks crimson and (never to be outdone), on her next trip to Woolworth's, Marion selected a large supply of white three-ply toilet roll for herself.”

Only rarely do we have the opportunity to read a novel with entertaining characters who speak in caustic dialogue, a novel that charms us with witty repartee, and one which teaches us the lasting impact of history without preaching at us. The Woman Next Door is that novel. 

Summing it Up: The Woman Next Door is enlightening, entertaining, honest, wry, and hope-filled. Reading it embeds you in Cape Town today and as it was under apartheid as you watch two acerbic women recall their lives.

Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, and moved to South Africa in 1992. Bom Boy, her first novel, was shortlisted for several fiction prizes. The Woman Next Door is a finalist for the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize. Omotoso lives in Johannesburg where she writes and has an architectural practice. Her experiences clearly contribute to the realism of the novel. 

Rating: 5 stars
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: February 7, 2017
What Others are Saying:
"An intimate, frequently hilarious look at the lives of two extraordinary women in post-apartheid South Africa...Deeply satisfying...The vivid setting and intricate descriptions transport the reader to this very specific time and place, though the crackling dialog and lively, fiercely independent protagonists are universal" Booklist

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Girl Up by Laura Bates

Girl Up is not a book I’d normally review partly because it isn’t yet available in the U.S. (It was published in England last spring and will be out in the U.S. in July.)  Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project and author of the ground breaking Everyday Sexism, wrote Girl Up to give teenage girls and young women a voice. She wrote it to counter the prevalent messages all teenage girls hear. On the opening page she tells girls that since they were babies, they’ve been getting messages about who they are and how the world sees them, messages that are all around them, all the time.
“They said you need to be thin and beautiful.
They told you to wear longer skirts, avoid going out late at night and move in groups. Never accept drinks from a stranger, and wear shoes you can run in more easily than heels.
They instructed you to wear just enough make-up to look ‘presentable’ but not enough to be a slag; to dress to flatter your apple, pear, hourglass figure, but not to be too slutty.
They warned you if you’re strong, opinionated, or take control, you’ll be shrill, bossy, a ballbreaker.
They asked you why you can’t take a joke.
They informed you that you should know your place.
The told you ‘that’s not for girls’; ‘take it as a compliment’; ‘don’t rock the boat’; ‘that’ll go straight to your hips’; ‘smile darling.’ They told you that ‘beauty is on the inside’ but you knew they didn’t really mean it.

Well, f*&% that. I’m here to tell you something else.”

Another reason why this isn't a title I'd typically include on this blog is that it’s filled to the brim and overflowing with the “f” word, with slang words for genitalia, and with statements and drawings that might embarrass some adult readers. However, many adult readers aren't the intended audience for this book (unless they’re teachers, parents, or counselors – then they need to read it).

From the reviews and comments I’ve read in British publications, girls thirteen and older can’t get enough of this book and love quoting parts of it to their friends and even to their mothers. This book is a game changer. This book is a survival guide for today’s teens and young women.
The main reason I am reviewing Girl Up now is that it allows me to share the following paragraph. If you have a teenager (boy or girl) living in your home, if you teach teenagers, if you know a teenager, or if you are a human being – read the next section.

“. . . sex is a lot like ice cream. . .
What’s most important of all is that you’d never force feed ice cream to somebody who said they didn’t want any. What a weird thing to do. People eat ice cream because they enjoy it, or it makes them feel good, or it’s a pleasurable thing to enjoy on their own or with somebody they’re close to. Nobody experiences any of these feelings from being force-fed ice cream when they don’t feel like it. You’d never turn up at someone’s house and prise a spoon between their lips unexpectedly without offering them ice cream first. Even if you came over planning to have ice cream, if they don’t want any you’d put it away again. It doesn’t stop you from going off and having some ice cream on your own, but you can’t force them to have any if they don’t feel like it. Even if someone initially thought they felt like ice cream, and got out the bowls and spoons, it’s still completely their right to decide if they change their mind and don’t want any after all. They equally have every right to push the bowl away in the middle of a scoop if they’ve had enough, or decide they want to stop eating it. If someone has decided they want one particular flavor of ice cream, you wouldn’t suddenly shove a different kind in their mouth while they’re in the middle of eating it.  If they were asleep, or unconscious, or very drunk, you wouldn’t just randomly start feeding it to them. And having ice cream with someone once doesn’t give you the right to just assume they’ll always want to split a sundae with you in the future. 

All these things also apply to sexual consent.”

Now, do you understand why I think this book is important and why I don't want to wait until July to tell you about it? Before July, you can contact your local independent book store (used or new) and ask them to get it for you now or to preorder it. You can also locate it online from sources like Abe Books, Alibris or Powell’s
If you’re a parent, teacher, counselor, or anyone working with teenagers, promise me that you’ll find a way to read this book and that you’ll share it. After you read it, talk about it with others and figure out a way to get it into the hands of the girls you know.

Summing it Up: Girl Up is brilliant; it’s bold, profane, sarcastic, and just what teenage girls and young women deserve to have in their corner. If you’re a parent, teacher, counselor, or just someone who cares about the future of girls, read this book. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in July to remind you when Girl Up hits the U.S. shelves.
Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Diet Coke and Gummi Bears, Five Stars, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Sushi with Green Tea Sorbet
Publication date: April, 2016 (in Great Britain), July, 2017 in the U.S.
The Everyday Sexism Site:

What Others are Saying:

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

Readers, you’ve been asking me for recommendations of novels similar to A Man Called Ove, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Several of you, especially those living in areas hard hit by winter, have asked me to suggest a charmer. So, a literal charmer it is. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper follows 69-year-old Arthur Pepper, a Yorkshire widower, as he leaves his contented comfort zone of a home to discover the stories behind the eight charms on his late wife Miriam’s gold charm bracelet. 

Each day, Arthur got out of bed at precisely 7:30 a.m. just as he did when his wife, Miriam, was alive. He showered and got dressed in the grey slacks, pale blue shirt and mustard tank top that he had laid out the night before. He had a shave then went downstairs.

At eight o’clock he made his breakfast, usually a slice of toast and margarine, and he sat at the pine farmhouse table that could seat six, but which now just seated one. At eight-thirty he would rinse his pots and wipe down the kitchen worktop using the flat of his hand and then two lemon-scented Flash wipes. Then his day could begin. . .

But today, the fifteenth day of the month, was different. It was the anniversary he had been dreading for weeks. The date on his Stunning Scarborough calendar caught his eye whenever he passed it. He would stare at it for a moment then try to find a small job to distract him. He would water his fern, Frederica, or open the kitchen window and shout ‘Gerroff’ to deter next door’s cats from using his rockery as a toilet.

It was one year to the day that his wife had died.

Arthur has a tenuous relationship with his two grown children. Neither one attended Miriam’s funeral. His son who lives in Australia cited the distance and business needs and his daughter who lives nearby wasn’t feeling well. Thus, Arthur has turned inward and relies on his daily habits to distract him from his woes. Finding the charm bracelet, a piece of jewelry that was entirely unlike anything Miriam would ever have worn, shakes Arthur out of his doldrums. As he heads to London and places beyond, his naiveté leads him into trouble while each escapade offers growth.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper isn’t literature with a capital “L,” instead, it’s a heart-warming story best told by a narrator with a British accent. This is a book to be heard, not read. Pretend that you’re a child and listen to this book as you sit in a cozy chair or drive off on a road trip to warmer climes. James Langton, the novel’s narrator, was born in York, England and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. His voice is absolutely spot-on in evoking Arthur and those he encounters.

I’ve read several novels using charm bracelets, letters, and other mementos as plot devices and most have been saccharine wastes of my time. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper with its wry humor, cast of unexpected characters, and yes, even the lessons it imparted, was an enchanting trek into a life I thoroughly enjoyed observing.

Listening to Arthur and his adventures made many a trip on Chicago’s not so delightful expressways enjoyable. I wonder if those who saw me as I stepped out of my car with a giant smile on my face imagined that it was a book that had me smiling. Arthur’s grief and his probable depression are expressed through a candid portrait of sincere emotional anguish, but the book is never maudlin. Rarely do I drive along laughing out loud then seconds later shed a tear while heading for my exit and I thank author Phaedra Patrick and narrator James Langton for providing such an adventure.

Summing it Up: Listen to The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper for a sentimental novel that will charm you, make you laugh, and brighten your worst day. This quintessentially British tale is as perfect for a winter day as a cup of tea and a hand knit afghan. If your book club is looking for relief from reading too many heavy tomes, this will be a “blinding” (excellent) choice. If you choose to read the novel in print the paperback edition was released on January 31, 2017.

Rating: 4 stars   

Category: Fiction, Dessert, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Road Food, Book Club

Publication date: May 3, 2016

What Others are Saying:

“Phaedra Patrick understands the soul. Eccentric, charming, and wise, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is about finding courage, generosity, and compassion, even when all seems lost. With clear-eyed prose and a moving story, Patrick reminds us how selfless people can be – she reminds us to be brave. The Curious Charms is not just for those who are mourning over love or the past. This book will illuminate your heart.” – Nina George, New York Times bestselling author of The Little Paris Bookshop