Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano is a remarkable ode to the power inherent in the belief that everyone deserves love. The novel cleverly references Little Women as four of the main characters are sisters similar to the March siblings. Hello Beautiful never forces connections to the classic tale but instead intertwines them seamlessly. Most of the action takes place over a few decades beginning in 1978 in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood with its blend of Mexican and Italian communities and on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston. Napolitano captures the old Lozano Library, murals, taverns, and parks that make Pilsen unique. Her attention to detail also contributes to strong portraits of each of the four sisters, their parents, and their brother-in-law William who are well-delineated characters whose actions realistically support the ingenious plot. 

Julia, the eldest sister, is a Northwestern student and a careful planner who’s mapped every detail of her life. When she meets William, a basketball player who’s studying history, she guides him toward becoming a history professor and doesn’t realize how much he loves basketball when a knee injury keeps him from playing. William, whose three-year-old sister died when he was only a few days old, has never felt deserving of love because his parents’ grief left them incapable of showing him affection. When he joins Julia’s large, expressive Italian family, he’s enveloped in their inclusiveness and total involvement in each other. Julia orchestrates their actions including her pregnancy shortly after they marry. When their daughter arrives, William falls into a deep depression and they divorce when he fears he will ruin his daughter’s life. 

I refuse to spoil this beautiful story by giving away the surprising twists that occur in each of the sisters’ and William’s lives and in their learning to find ways to accept that they are worthy of being loved and of loving others after Julia and William divorce. In addition to Julia, each of her sisters is unique. I was so invested in them that I found myself crying happy tears when each character found ways of connection and acceptance along with tears of sadness when circumstances interfered. Napolitano also built remarkable minor characters that I adored. William and Julia’s daughter Alice, a precocious child, had me on tenterhooks with worry because she was so well portrayed and I was invested in her future. My favorite character is William’s former teammate Kent who nurtures him and helps him find self-worth in a career he loves. The way Kent enables William to find himself and love again is both poignant and strong. Supportive male friendships that aren’t caricatures are seldom seen in novels today making their relationship one to celebrate.

Each character in this novel is real to me so I was tempted to drive to Pilsen to walk the streets, enter the parks, and stare at the murals because I was certain I’d see members of the Padavano family there. This is a novel filled with beauty and sadness because that’s real life and it’s made even more real because of its setting.

Napolitano’s 2020 novel Dear William captured me with its caring rendering of the life of a boy who was the only survivor of a plane accident. It also showed how we can become whole by loving one another. In Hello Beautiful, Napolitano outdoes herself with a cast of characters that teaches us that life is hard, but we can endure. 

Summing it Up: Read Hello Beautiful for a big-hearted family saga that will envelop you completely as you enter Chicago’s Pilsen community and become a part of the Padavano family. Select this for your book club as these characters will remain with you and you’ll want to talk about them with friends. 

For Chicagoans, this is a must-read with the neighborhood settings and even a brief visit to the glory days of the Chicago Bulls.

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: March 14, 2023

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

Author Website: https://annnapolitano.com/ 

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/ann-napolitano/hello-beautiful/ 

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9780593243732 

“This sumptuous family saga is one of those rare novels whose singular characters are so beautifully rendered, it’s as if they’re your best friends, and you’re grateful to be in their orbit. Napolitano’s homage to Little Women, albeit set in late-20th century Chicago, will prompt you to slow down as you read, never wanting the book to end. When it does, prepare for tears.”—Oprah Quarterly

“Sweeping . . . With the vibrant and close-knit Pilson neighborhood playing a supporting role, Napolitano’s latest novel investigates the deep, maddeningly frustrating, and ever-present love of family, whether tied by genetics or by choice.”—Booklist, starred review

“This is a richly woven story about family, but it’s also a unique take on Little Women. There are no heroes or villains here, only people—flawed and loving and striving like the rest of us. ‘Generosity’ is the word that comes to mind when I reflect on this gorgeous novel.”—Allegra Goodman, New York Times bestselling author of The Cookbook Collector and Sam

“Hello Beautiful is the work of a great author at the height of her powers. Equally immersive, emotional, and brilliantly crafted, this is an early contender for best novel of the year.”—J. Ryan Stradal, New York Times bestselling author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota


Monday, March 13, 2023

Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine

Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine is a spectacular novel. It’s a charming and important recollection of 1940s Southern California and the lives of the Jewish families who moved there to escape Germany and Austria before World War II coupled with a compelling, poignant, and droll tale of life in quarantine in the early days of Covid in Los Angeles. Julian Künstler, a 23-year-old aspiring writer and sporadic student of varying subjects, loses his part-time job, his girlfriend, and his roommate in early 2020. His parents won’t give him money to keep his NYC apartment so when Mamie, his 93-year-old grandmother, breaks her wrist, his parents think: “removing their son from the disarray of his life and depositing him into Mamie’s disarray—the perfect solution. He heads to Venice, California where Mamie lives in a 1920s bungalow with Agatha, her cook and companion, a woman she refers to as her “dogsbody.”

While Julian settles in, Mamie begins to share stories of her life beginning in 1939 in Vienna when she was eleven and her accomplished Jewish family including her screenwriter mother, her pianist father, and her grandfather fled the Nazis. Schine cleverly uses language that illuminates the Künstler family as Mamie describes her uncle to Julian: “Uncle Gustav was yelling . . . in Yiddish! The forbidden, vulgar language of the shtetl, of the Jewish slums.” . . . “We never spoke what we Viennese considered a mongrel language, the speech of the poor, of Eastern European Jews, unenlightened, practically medieval.” 

“Künstler snobbery,” Julian said, nodding.

As Mamie continues weaving her tales, Covid arrives so the unlikely trio quarantines together and Julian’s presence becomes essential. As they share meals and cocktail hours in the garden, Julian’s parents remain in New York. Schine seamlessly explores the similarity between the Jewish exile in the paradise of 1940 Los Angeles and the lush garden paradise of California in 2020 when so many in New York City were dying of Covid. Mamie’s ruminations on her family’s arrival in Los Angeles before the war felt similar to the feelings of so many in 2020: “No one was happy here at first, Mamie thought. But neither were we dead.” 

Mamie is a magnificent character described by Julian’s mother as “exotic and quixotic.” “Neurotic, his father would add.” She was an accomplished violinist who'd traveled the world performing. At 93, her hair was orange-red, Julian “thought it was because she had planted herself in her new world and was determined that people see her there. Her hair was celebratory: she had survived.” Her remembrances are as colorful as her hair especially as she tells of her close relationships with Greta Garbo and composer Arnold Schoenberg and of her family’s friendships with Aldous Huxley, Anita Loos, Christopher Isherwood and others. Julian asks, “You met Charlie Chaplain? Really?” “A nodding acquaintance,” states Mamie. Those encounters make the reader feel as if they were guests at he parties that only occurred in late afternoons because the German and Austria émigrés had to abide by a wartime curfew at 8 p.m. 

Julian takes careful notes of Mamie’s memories to use in his screenplay, Exiles in Space, as his grandmother describes her past and he becomes closer to her and grows in empathy while beginning to feel that he has a purpose. As the novel begins, he isn't as exciting a character as his grandmother or as humorous a one as is the stalwart Agatha with her ever-present pocketbook and its can of Mace. Instead, the reader gets to watch his growth as he becomes more comfortable with himself.

Summing it Up: Read Künstlers in Paradise to experience five generations of a family from their roots in a fairy-tale life in early twentieth-century Vienna to survivor guilt in sunny California, followed by assimilation in 21st-century New York City. Sit in the lush garden listening as Mamie shares her memories with her grandson Julian. Experience the power of story to connect us and help us find ourselves as you revel in Mamie’s witty wordplay and wisdom as in these sentences: “I do not believe in life after death,” Mamie said. “I sometimes have trouble believing in life before death; it is all so improbable.” Buy this book and embed yourself in Maggie, Agatha, and Julian’s beautiful, improbable world.

A personal note: I wish my mother were alive to read this novel. She loved reading about the period before World War II and appreciated clever banter and exquisite sentences. In 1939 at age seventeen, she spent two months in England and France with her aunt and uncle. She told me stories about her trip and I have both the journal she kept and the passenger list from her return on the S. S. Normandie in June, 1939. Seeing names like Rosenfeld, Rosenberg, Schoeneman, Schulz, and Yaffe listed alongside American citizens including Avery Brundage and actor Ray Milland and European princes, princesses, barons, and baronesses make Shine’s story and research even more real for me. I particularly related to the stories about actors as Mom’s journal and subsequent conversations showed how enamored she was with seeing and talking with Ray Milland.

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: February 14, 2023

Category: Dessert, Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie (Historical Fiction), Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website: https://cathleenschine.me/ 

Interview with the Author: https://cathleenschine.me/knstlers-in-paradise-qa 

Watch this: https://www.nbcnewyork.com/on-air/as-seen-on/bills-books/bills-books-two-novels-and-a-festival-honoring-a-great-american-author/4148595/

What Others are Saying: 

Jewish Book Council: https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/kunstlers-in-paradise

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/cathleen-schine/kunstlers-in-paradise/

Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-03-10/l-a-transplant-novelist-cathleen-schines-love-letter-to-its-refugee-generations

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9781250805904 

Dreamy, drifty, and droll, studded with lush botanical description and historical gems. Schine’s many fans will enjoy."

—Kirkus Reviews

"Reading like a cross between Leopoldstadt and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, this does the trick as an emotionally resonant meditation on family, memory, and the need for stories."

—Publishers Weekly

"Few authors could pull off what Cathleen Schine does in Künstlers in Paradise: creating a seamless, multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history. . . . Künstlers in Paradise is truly a trove of unexpected rewards." 

—BookPage, Starred Review

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Love is in the Air

As Valentine’s Day approaches, my thoughts turn to books celebrating, exploring, and envisioning love. We who live in northern regions also celebrate Valentine’s Day as a time when spring’s promise seems close yet the reality of cold days beckons us to stay inside with a cup of tea and a book. Treat yourself or someone you love to one of these books this February.

+500 Miles from You by Jenny Colgan begins as Lissa, a nurse, visits patients in a distressed London neighborhood and witnesses a hit and run, the seemingly deliberate running down of a teen she knows. When she experiences PTSD, her supervisor asks her to swap jobs with a nurse in an isolated town in the Scottish Highlands for three months thinking it will be healing. Cormac, the nurse/paramedic she switches with, isn’t keen on the bustle of London but is ready for a change. The two email daily reporting on their patients and soon make a connection. I wanted an additional 100 pages so their meeting could have been fleshed out to have the depth and impact of the rest of the book, but I still loved it. I don’t cry often, but the hit and run and aftermath were so expertly written, they captured me and I shed many tears. A lovely escape with the bonus of the sensitive handling of depression and of organ transplants. Everyone needs a true romance for Valentine's Day. D/GPR/SBP/SF, BC (2020)

+The Light Pirate by Lily Brooks-Dalton

portrays the dying state of Florida as frequent hurricanes and rising water levels threaten. As the latest storm approaches, Kirby’s boys disappear. While he searches for them, his wife Frida gives birth to baby Wanda alone. The novel follows Wanda through decades of losses that mirror her abandoned town and state. The four parts: power, water, light, and time offer an enlightening, yet bleak, view of climate change and the future while exploring engaging, multi-dimensional characters filled with hope along with a touch of magic realism. The book shows how difficult it can be to trust enough to love after suffering so much loss. Yet, love always wins. GPR/SN, BC (2022)

+Love & Saffron by Kim Fay was on my 2022 list but must be revisited for this holiday. Set in the 1960s, this charmingly poignant, delightful epistolary novel blends friendship, food, and life. When Joan sends Imogen a fan letter regarding her “Letter from the Island” column along with a packet of saffron from a trip to the “Far East,” a correspondence blossoms with shared recipes, advice, and kindness that will melt even the hardest heart. Taking risks in friendship and love makes for one fine escape of a novel you’ll devour in a day. One sentence seems meant for today: “The less we cement ourselves to our certainties, the fuller our lives can be.” Taking a chance on love is just what readers need in February. D/GPR/PP, BC (2022)

+Maureen by Rachel Joyce

Maureen is the third book in the Harold Fry series following the phenomenal The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and the poignant The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey. Originally titled Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North in Britain, this 192-page novel completes the saga with Maureen’s journey to Queenie’s garden where she learns that there’s a tribute to her son. She’s not sure about visiting but feels she must. Along the way, she encounters difficulties and unexpected help and compassion. This is a solid reflection on forgiveness and love. It starts slowly until Maureen and the story find their way and love begins to overpower grief. GPR/SBP/SF, BC (2023)

+The Measure by Nikki Erlick, One morning, every adult on earth receives an indestructible wooden box inscribed “The measure of your life lies within.” The boxes each contain a string indicating the amount of time the recipient has left to live. Almost immediately, the world changes, with short stringers experiencing discrimination and eight main characters each taking a different approach to the strings they’ve been dealt. The premise is unique and the novel forms a parable filled with love and grieving that offers hope and insight. This one is certain to be a book club hit. GPR/S/SF, BC (2022)

+The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin

Alice lives alone on land that was home to her family's apple orchard. She works for the county and anticipates a promotion, but when it doesn’t come, she quits her job to concentrate on raising bees and fighting a conglomerate moving to the area with chemicals that will kill her bees and destroy her community. After she almost runs over Jake, a teen in a wheelchair, on a deserted road, she takes him home and observes his father’s cruelty and offers the boy a temporary place to live in her home. He has an affinity for the bees and wants to work with them, but she needs someone able to do more than his disability allows. When 24-year-old Harry, recently out of prison, arrives to stay with his grandfather, his skills complement Jake’s so he moves into the barn and the unique trio supports each other. This debut celebrates familial love, healing, and growth. The gentle novel cleverly teaches the reader about beekeeping and bees while exploring the theme of community in hives and in life. GPR/SN, BC (2022)

*Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro, It’s 1985 and 15-year-old Theo Wilf is driving the car because his older sister Sarah has been drinking. They crash in front of their home and Misty Zimmerman, their passenger, dies. Sarah claims that she was the driver and no one checks her for alcohol as her father, a doctor, runs out and tries to save Misty but may inadvertently contribute to her death. An omniscient narrator takes the reader ahead in time as the secrets of that day affect the family. Later, on the New Year’s Eve before 2000, Dr. Wilf again leaves his house to deliver and save the life of the premature baby being born to new neighbors across the street. He forms a relationship with Waldo, the child, who shows the doctor an app that charts constellations and forms a significant part of Waldo’s life. The app highlights the interconnectedness theme as it details “stars. . . signal fires in the dark, mysterious fellow travelers lighting a path.” That interconnectedness,  outstanding character development, and Shapiro’s incredible word pictures lead to a beautiful climax celebrating love and life. This is a brilliant novel. G (2022)

+A Winter Grave by Peter May

is a stand-alone mystery from the award-winning author of one of my favorites, the Lewis trilogy of mysteries. It’s 2051, and much of the earth is too hot to inhabit while the melting Gulf Stream has hit Scotland with rare snow and ice storms. In the northern Highlands, Addie, a meteorologist, discovers the body of a missing investigative reporter encased in ice at a weather station, she’s monitoring. Cameron Brodie, a Glasgow detective just diagnosed with a terminal disease, volunteers to investigate hoping to reconnect with his estranged daughter who lives in the village. He and a pathologist encounter evidence of murder as a storm cuts them off from the rest of the world and they can’t trust anyone in the village. When people start dying and there seems to be no safe route out, Brode must come up with a way to outsmart the bad guys. What’s love got to do with it? Everything! Love keeps a father from revealing facts that could hurt and love enables the good guys to do more than seems possible to save the world. (2023)

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Best Books of 2022

I’m testing the adage “Better Late than Never” with this listing of the Best Books of 2022 coming in mid January rather than in the last week of 2022. Since there’s never a bad time for a good book, I hope these titles find you when you’re hungry for a good book. The illustration atop this post is part of a series I love called “Ideal Bookshelf” by Jane Mount. This one titled “Banned Books” seems especially appropriate this year as book banning increased in schools and libraries across the U.S. Mount’s prints are available at https://www.etsy.com/shop/janemount

All of the books listed below are also listed on my Annual List with complete descriptions of each title.

The Best Fiction of 2022:

Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie was the best novel I read in 2022 that was published in 2022.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan was the best novel I read in 2022 that was published in 2021.

The Runners-Up for Best Fiction:

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Lark Ascending by Silas House

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus 

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

Recitatif by Toni Morrison (1983, new release with introduction by Zadie Smith 2022)

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka 

The Winners by Fredrik Backman

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

The Best Historical Fiction, also known as Pigeon Pie:

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus 

The Runners-Up for Best Historical Fiction:

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara 

Cora’s Kitchen by Kimberly Garrett Brown

The Final Revival of Opal and Ned by Dawnie Walton

The Foundling by Anne Leary

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins Valdez

The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

The Best Debut Novels of 2022:

Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie


Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus 

The Runners-Up for Best Debut Novels of 2022:

Cora’s Kitchen by Kimberly Garrett Brown

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton

Groundskeeping by Lee Cole

Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

The Best Dessert, Happy, Pick-Me-Up Book of 2022:

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

The Runners-Up for Best Dessert, Happy, Pick-Me-Up Books of 2022:

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

Love & Saffron by Kim Fay

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

The Best Mysteries, Suspense, and Thriller of 2022:

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

The Runners-Up for Best Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers of 2022:

Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara 

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper (2017)

A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny

The Best Nonfiction Book of 2022:

Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz 

The Runners-Up for Best Nonfiction Books of 2022:

Beautiful Country by Julie Qian Wang (2021)

The River You Touch by Chris Dombrowski 

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Day (2021)

Up North in Michigan by Jerry Dennis (2021)

Widowland by Rachel Brougham