Thursday, September 16, 2021

In the Aftermath by Jane Ward


David Herron and his wife Jules own a bakery. Jules is a baker extraordinaire. She bakes artisanal bread, complicated cakes, and delicious cookies. David, an accountant, attends to the financial details—or so Jules thinks. One morning in that worst of years to have monetary problems—2008, David doesn’t show up for work. He’s called his best friend Charlie to meet him at a coffee shop by the beach to talk, but Charlie is running late so David takes off his shoes and walks into the water leaving the heartache of overextended loans and a twice-mortgaged home, problems he still hasn’t revealed to Jules, behind. He’d tried to convince his wealthy father to bail him out and things might have changed had his father agreed to go with him to the bank that morning, but he hadn’t so David kept walking into the sea. 

Two years later, David and Jules’s daughter Rennie blames herself for her father’s death. If only I’d been nicer that morning, she thinks. His best friend Charlie who arrived twenty minutes late to meet David on the shore blames himself too. If only I’d been there, he berates himself. Daniel, the young banker who called in David’s loans, also thinks he’s to blame so he quits his job and leaves the town and his family and wanders. If only I’d tried to give him more time, he ponders. Even Denise, the police detective who worked the case, thinks she mishandled it and wants to make amends. If only she’d paid more attention, she worries. 

All of them are dealing with the “if onlys” by taking different paths. At the center of them all, stands Jules, now an employee baking cupcakes at their former bakery that David’s father turned into a cupcake emporium after paying off the bakery loans. She hates the job since David’s father has also installed a bully as the other baker, a man watching her every move. That author Jane Ward has worked as a baker is evident in the realism of the scenes showing Jules working at a frenzied pace in the bakery and later in the cupcake store. She has no money and her stress at trying to cope with her losses leaves her only capable of half-listening to her daughter Rennie’s problems. She and all the characters in the novel are searching for ways to move past their guilt and grief and toward finding a way to forgive themselves. 

The joy of this page-turner you’ll want to read in a day is that author Jane Ward builds multi-dimensional characters that readers will care about. She makes you see yourself in each character as you consider how we all make mistakes and we all leave an aftermath of loss when we do so. The multiple points of view keep the story building in stair steps leading to a view of the tremendous impact that one man’s suicide has on so many.

Even the activities of the most minor characters are rendered with exquisite care as in Daniel’s interaction with his coworker’s son Josh at a marsh.

The grownups followed Josh’s outstretched arm as it pointed to the sky. In the stunted trees, the egrets were rousing themselves, shaking off their lethargy. Feathers ruffled and fluffed as, one by one, the birds unfolded themselves and stretched, all enormous wing spans and ungainly movement, and they pushed off their branches or stumps and took flight, rearranging their awkward bodies into streamlined torpedoes as massive wings beat against the air and propelled them into the sky. Soon the trees were empty, the birds gone without a trace.”

That section made me feel as if I were standing in that marsh as the egrets rose. It also reminded me of how quickly things can change. Just as the birds were gone without a trace, so had David vanished into the sea. It was now up to those left in the aftermath to shake off their lethargy and push off from their branches or stumps and take flight no matter how awkward it might feel for them to do so.

Summing it Up: In the Aftermath embeds the reader in the lives of the family, friends, and others connected to the sudden death of David Herron. The story will capture you on the first page and pull you along so speedily, you won’t want to set it down for even a minute. However, you will set it aside just long enough to look up so you too can ponder the “if onlys” and think about the difference you might make and who you might forgive—even if it’s yourself. You’ll read In the Aftermath quickly, but you’ll spend a long time afterward thinking about the lives of the characters so intimately touched by such a deep and unexpected loss. 

Kirkus Reviews awarded it a coveted star and Foreword called it “a masterful novel.”

Rating: 5 stars

Categories: Fiction. Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication Date: September 21, 2021

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“Jane Ward’s In the Aftermath is a big-hearted, relationship-rich page-turner that will leave you thinking deeply about resilience, intimacy, family, loyalty, and truth.”  — Kristin Bair, author of Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner

The title of Dawn Turner’s exquisite Three Girls from Bronzeville sets the stage for the reader. We immediately know that we’ll meet three girls and most of us from Chicago can picture those girls in Bronzeville, a section of the city south of downtown where the Black migration established a distinct community. For those who don’t know about Bronzeville, Turner shares that it was the home of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, cardiac surgeon Daniel Hale Williams, Louie Armstrong, and Ida B. Wells. 

Turner embeds the reader into 1970s Bronzeville when she and the other two girls were young—showing the reader a place that redlining and disinvestment kept economically challenged despite its desirable location. She also shows us the region in earlier times when her mother, aunt, and grandmother were also three girls from Bronzeville. This is both a chronicle of the community and a compelling character study of three unique girls growing up in it. What sets this book apart from other memoirs set in disenfranchised places is Turner’s ability to place the reader in her life and that of the other two girls. Turner’s detailed observations coupled with her open-hearted sharing of her own story make the book both intimate and genuine. 

The opening lines establish the connection with the author: 

“I often think about my sister and my best friend. Not every minute. Not even every day. I mostly think about them when I am experiencing something I would have wanted to share. Some moment that would allow us to tug on a line, thin as a filament, that begins “Remember when . . .” and draws a seemingly ever-present past nearer.” 

When the book begins, we see Dawn Turner’s younger sister Kim following nine-year-old Dawn and her new best friend Debra. Both their families have recently moved into a privately owned apartment complex that’s just a chain-link fence away from the Ida B. Wells Homes, a deteriorating public housing project. The girls are inseparable and we get to know them as they go to school and play together every day afterward. That we know these little girls so well, makes watching the different paths they follow real to us. When Dawn is admitted to Hyde Park High School where she also takes classes at the University of Chicago, we can see that she may be leaving the other girls behind. 

Most descriptions of the book will tell you that Kim died at age 24 and Debra was addicted to drugs and incarcerated while Dawn became a successful journalist, novelist, and Nieman Fellow. Those are facts. Three Girls from Bronzeville invites the reader into the truth beyond the facts.

It’s more important for readers to know that this book is what it tells us it is: “a story of second chances. Who gets them, who doesn’t, who makes the most of them.” Read Three Girls from Bronzeville to feel what getting or not getting second chances can mean to both the community at large and to those who do or don’t get them.

Summing it Up: This memoir of growing up on the south side of Chicago shows the power of believing in second chances and forgiveness. It reads like a compelling novel especially when the author reconnects with her imprisoned friend Debra and examines her own life. It combines the author’s meticulous reporting skills with her desire to find the truth. Rarely does a memoir capture the characters in the writer’s life as well as Turner does in Three Girls from Bronzeville. Read this poignant, powerful, inspiring memoir and select it for your book club to ponder.

Appearances: Dawn Turner will open the Printers Row Lit Fest in a conversation about Three Girls from Bronzeville at 10 a.m. Sept. 11 in Chicago’s South Loop.

Dawn Turner will also participate in the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book on September 25. She will appear in two panel discussions: “Subverting Stereotypes'' at 10:30 a.m. and “Reclaiming a Life” at 3:30 p.m. FYI: I’ll be moderating a session titled “Making the Midwest Universal'' at 9:00 a.m. Festival registration is waitlisted at this time.

A Note: If you love this memoir as I did, you might want to read a spectacular novel that’s also set in Bronzeville and other areas of Chicago’s south side. Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is a testament to friendship, secrets, and family.

Rating: 5 stars 

Category: Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Soul Food, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: September 7, 2021

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