Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Book – Anything Is Possible is a set of connected short stories about the people living in the small, rural town of Amgash, Illinois. Retired school janitor Tommy Guptill reflects on the lives of some of the former students as he shops for a birthday gift for his wife. The three Barton siblings attended the school and  we learn about their difficult childhood and lives as adults. Linda Peterson-Cornell relates the consequences of her husband’s voyeurism and infidelities. A war veteran searches for love and redemption. I loved seeing characters through the eyes of different townspeople, as they encountered them in their daily lives. Despite the obstacles and difficulties they faced, there were also moments of grace and hope. I have found myself reflecting on these stories and on the bonds of families and friends. Stout also wrote Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton, Amy and Isabelle and other popular novels.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

Book – I frequently tell people that some of the best science fiction and fantasy is happening in short stories. It seems counter-intuitive that you could squeeze a satisfying world and characters both out of a couple dozen pages, especially when it’s so hard to find a novel that isn’t part of a series, but there’s something about the short format that really packs a hefty punch. Kij Johnson is an excellent example: her stories are complex, rich, and deep, set in spectacular worlds ranging from just different enough from ours to be intriguing to so different they should be hard to imagine (although she makes it easy). And they’ve won three Nebula awards, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees circle around themes of grief, loss, rebuilding, and the power of story itself to help us through these. In “The Horse Raiders,” a young woman is the only survivor of an attack that wipes out her clan, only to discover that a plague is wiping out their entire planet’s way of life. In “Dia Chjerman’s Tale,” women captives on an imperial spaceship tell the stories of how their ancestors stayed alive. And in the title story, a road trip leads to an unexpected pilgrimage and an even more unexpected chance for grace on behalf of a woman’s dying dog. The characters in these stories are angry, they’re hurt, they lash out and they make mistakes, but they also pull themselves together and carry on.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

7493Book— Structured into six chapters covering six seminal events in Revolutionary American history, Founding Brothers provides a glimpse into the psyches of America’s founding generation. According to Ellis, accounts of the founders often render these men heroically remote and untouchable (well, until the Hamilton musical, that is); by focusing on the bonds among them, Ellis hopes to render his subjects more accessible. Discrete incidents such as the dinner that decided the location of the U.S. capitol and the duel that took Hamilton’s life reveal who these men were when their characters were tested. Ellis’ writing shines when he humanizes the founders with little personal details. Jefferson often sang under his breath. Madison was sickly. Adams was choleric and has a tumultuous friendship with Jefferson. Ellis’ accessible story-telling makes the Revolution feel immediate and precarious rather than a foregone conclusion with the benefit of hindsight.

For a closer look at some of the founding fathers, check out Ellis’ other books, like American Sphinx, which focuses on Jefferson, and His Excellency, which portrays Washington.

 

No Manches Frida (WTH Frida?!?!) (2016)

Movie – In a new take on a German film, No Manches Frida is a story about a con man, a group of at risk high school kids, and a teacher who needs help to reach them. Zequi just got out of prison for bank robbery. They never found the money he stole. Zequi hid it so well even he cannot get to it. Buried under a school gymnasium, Zequi needs to figure out how to retrieve the money, payoff an associate, and stay out of jail.

Zequi goes for a janitor position interview at the school and ends up with a teaching position. He is placed in charge of the most troublesome students on the campus. His job is to keep them in line and out of trouble. On his first day though, he runs screaming from them and vows never to return. Convinced to stay he comes prepared with some very unorthodox methods of keeping them inline. Paintballs, shaming, and a field trip to see what becomes of unruly high school students; the students begin to respect Zequi and believe they can succeed.

Set in Mexico, the movie is a feel good, help the misguided, romance story. At a time when all the stories coming out from there are about narco-traffickers, kidnapping, disappearances, and government corruption, this movie doesn’t really address any of those issues. Instead it demonstrates how anyone from any background can make a difference sharing their experiences. There is a lot of vulgar language in the movie and some questionable teaching methods. It is not for everyone. If you like over the top foreign comedies with profane language, them this is your type of movie.  The movie is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

41-rjgGUB5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book–Ella Minnow Pea (LMNOP) lives with her family on the fictional island of Nollop, just off the coast of South Carolina. On the island nation founded by Nevin Nollop, supposed creator of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” Nollopian citizens are proud of their wordy heritage and communicate in a sesquipedalian style that makes their letters a fun, dictionary-requiring read. In the center of town, there is a memorial to Nevin Nollop, including his famous sentence. The plot begins when one letter falls off of the statue: the letter “Z.” Rather than re-affixing the letter to the monument and moving on, the island Council chooses to interpret this as a divine sign from Nollop, and bans this letter from Nollop’s written and spoken discourse. While “Z” is no great loss, the Nollopian’s rationalize, and dutifully eliminate it, they are less sanguine when more letters begin to fall from the statue and accordingly, from their language, turning their society of free expression into one of censorship, fear, and constrained liberties.

Considered as a novel, Ella Minnow Pea is weak–the characterization is broad and the world-building is vague. As a fable in the vein of Animal Farm, though, it is great fun, and as a linguistic experiment, it’s even better. This book will appeal to people who love children’s books like The Phantom Tollbooth and The Lost Track of Time and were craving an adult version of books that have so much fun with the English language.

 

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Book – Being a First Lady is no easy task.  Perhaps that’s why our current President’s wife, Melania would rather pass the baton to her step-daughter Ivanka than fully take on the role herself. Curtis Sittenfeld tells the fascinating story of the American Wife and the work and loyalty required of someone whose spouse has political aspirations. Supposedly, this is a fictional account of former First Lady Laura Bush. However, while reading this, some other politician’s wives came to mind, especially those who have stood by their man through thick and thin. This is the story of Alice, a Wisconsin girl with a humble background. She is a school librarian who is swept off her feet by Charlie Blackwell who has grown up in a different world. He is highly privileged and comes from a very wealthy family that is tight-knit and Republican. Even though Charlie isn’t politically ambitious, his family has other plans for him. He becomes governor and then unlikely ascends to the White House. Alice meticulously recounts that life is far more tedious and complex than it appears on the surface and that all her actions are monitored for political ramifications and that privacy is a thing of the past.  She also is conflicted, because she has always been a Democrat and wants to hold onto her ideals while being supportive to her husband. I hoped that Alice would have been a stronger character, nevertheless it was a very interesting read.  This would be a good book club selection, as well.  You may also enjoy Sittenfeld’s other books – Eligible, The Man of My Dreams, Prep, and Sisterland.

 

My Favorite Thing is Monsters: Book One by Emil Ferris

Graphic novel – Set in Chicago in the 60s, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the semi-autobiographical story of Karen, a ten-year-old girl who pictures (and draws) herself as a werewolf. After her upstairs neighbor dies mysteriously, her death officially labeled a suicide, Karen takes it on herself to investigate, learning about her lovely neighbor’s history as a Holocaust survivor, her older brother Deeze’s many and varied relationships with women, and just exactly how far her monster mask will take her. Meanwhile, her mother is dying of cancer, Martin Luther King, Jr. has just been killed, and Karen is probably in love with her best friend.

This is an incredible story, richly layered, full of wonderful, fully-realized characters. Despite the youth of the narrator, there are a lot of heavy themes, but they are rendered with their full complexity intact. And the art is astounding – printed on paper lined like a spiral notebook, the sketchy pencil drawings are absolutely gorgeous, whether Ferris is rendering Deeze’s many weary ex-girlfriends or Karen’s favorite works from the Art Institute. The only unfortunate thing? It ends on a cliffhanger, and Book Two doesn’t come out until next year.

Here to Stay by Catherine Anderson

BookHere to Stay by Catherine Anderson is one of my staple romantic novels. Twenty-Eight year old Mandy Pajeck’s life revolves around caring for her younger brother Luke. Luke lost his sight as a young child, in a horrific accident that Mandy blames herself for. Mandy has done everything for the now angsty teenage boy since they were young. With an abusive father, and a mother who abandoned the two siblings, Mindy has always protected her brother and he never has to lift a finger. Luke plays on his sister’s guilt and  has never tried to learn to do anything for himself.

Romance is the furthest thing from Mandy’s mind until she meets hunky Zach Harrigan. Zach’s life used to revolve around parties and fun; he never had a reason to take anything serious. When his life begins to lack the luster it once had, Zach decides to use his expertise of horsemanship to do something meaningful for a change.  He begins to train a miniature horse to become a guide animal for the blind.  When Zach and Mandy cross paths, sparks fly, but Mandy just can’t let go of the past to make room for romance. As the two develop a closer relationship, Zach urges Mandy to confront her past, and the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. Could Zach be the one man that can change Mandy’s mind on love? Will she ever be able to move on from her past, and forgive herself for her brother’s blindness? A story of love, loss, and moving on; Here to Stay is chock full of feelings and hope.

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Book – Grace Holland lives with her husband, Gene, and their two young children in a small home on the coast of Maine. She doesn’t drive, receives an allowance from Gene and spends her days caring for her children, managing the house and visiting with her best friend, Rosie. Her marriage is complacent and somewhat dull. Grace wonders why she has never experienced the “god-awful joy” when making love to Gene that Rosie once mentioned. In the Fall of 1947, the town suffers a severe drought and fires begin to break out along the coast. Gene leaves to help fight the blazes and is still gone when the devastating flames reach the town. With most of the houses destroyed, and her husband missing, Grace is forced to take matters in her own hands. As she searches for a means to make money and build a new life for herself and for her children, she is also forced to confront situations more difficult then she could ever have imagined. I admired Grace’s resiliency and pragmatism. She asked for help and accepted it, but she was determined to find a way to be independent. Shreve also wrote The Weight of Water, The Pilot’s Wife and other popular novels.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

Book- According to Belly, summer is the only time of the year that counts. Every summer she goes to Cousins Beach leaving her school life alone. She starts out as a young and annoying little sister to Stephen. At the beach house they are also with her moms best friend for life and her two boys Conrad and Jeremiah.  She was left out of all the cool things, like camping on the beach, going to a party down the beach, going to the pier with the boys. She was always feeling left out.

She is absolutely in love with and chasing after Conrad. He does little things to show her he notices her and cares for her, but then he follows that up with being distant and harsh with her. Finally this summer, she thinks its the summer to change everything. She is allowed to go to the party down the beach and meets a new guy named Cam. He is a little different, but she likes different. She is not sure how much she can like him, as her heart always belongs to Conrad. Then there is Jeremiah, her best friend at the beach, who occasionally shares a secret lust look with her.

I enjoyed this book. This is the first in a trilogy (all of which I have read), and I think Jenny Han sets up the background story well. I did get a little annoyed with Belly, the main character, as she is a little over dramatic at times. I suppose that’s why this is considered a young adult romance novel. It was a nice easy read where the plot line isn’t far-fetched or complicated. It reminded me of the way I used to see things at her age. Man, I am excited to actually be an adult!