December and January books

By my own standards, I haven’t been reading much lately, but what I have managed to read, I’ve really enjoyed.

Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict

Benedict wrote The Other Einstein (which I thoroughly enjoyed – my review here) and I must have clicked that little “Follow” button on Amazon because I got an email when this latest novel came out.  Just like the strong female character in that book, here we find a young Irish immigrant who becomes a lady’s maid for Andrew Carnegie’s mother.  Through the fictionalized story, we learn that perhaps she was the one who caused such a large transformation in the well-known businessman and caused him to become a philanthropist.  It is full of true-to-life detail about the immigrant experience of struggle while supporting family at home and the class distinctions of the 1860’s.  I found it entertaining. Recommend.

Whenever Mr. Carnegie was at Fairfield for the day—instead of his offices downtown or traveling—we met in the park on that same bench during my mistress’s afternoon rest. There, in thirty-minute increments, he offered me hope, for myself and my family. I knew my route would not match his precisely. But if a poor Scottish immigrant could carve out a fresh, successful path for himself, maybe there was some way I could too. I began to believe this, even though I was a woman and the climb from one societal echelon to another had only been accomplished by men. And only very recently at that. I listened. And I learned. By working harder than anyone else, always at the behest of Mr. Scott, Mr. Carnegie had scaled the hierarchy of the Pennsylvania Railroad to reach his current position of division superintendent, which made him the man in charge of safely moving all rail traffic in western Pennsylvania. A heady height indeed for a small lad from Scotland, as he liked to tell me. But his true success came not from advancing rung by rung up that corporate ladder—a rare enough feat—but by investing in companies, a notion that had been novel to him. And to me.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Trudy, a professor of German history, wants to know more about her mother’s life. We learn about her mother, Anna, and what she had did and who she lost in the war.  In writing about the German perspective of the Holocaust, Blum tells a slightly different story than what most novels are about. I cared about the characters and got caught up in the story. Recommend.

But as Trudy sits trying to calm her breathing, she also remembers what Rainer has said: Let the punishment fit the crime. Anna has taken the burden of silence upon herself. It is her decision not to speak of the things she has done, valiant or otherwise. It is in fact her prerogative as a hero. And in another way, whether she is a hero or not is immaterial. Each person has this choice to make about how to live with the past, this dignity, this inviolable right.

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Imagine a story around each object to give it meaning.  This is Hogan’s first novel and it’s quiet but joyful and touching.  It’s about “losing and finding ourselves, the objects that hold magic and meaning for our lives, and the surprising connections that bind us.” There are two plot lines and I found both to be very engaging. The characters are really great – some of them are quirky, but very real. Highly recommend!

She was able to feel the pain and joy of others and give them value… she wasn’t a mere spectator of other people’s lives; she had to engage.  Her capacity to care was instinctive.  It was her greatest asset and her greatest vulnerability; she had been burned and he knew it had left a mark… However long it took a broken person to be strong enough to face the world again.  And he hoped that by his choosing her to finish his task, it might set [her] free.

The Leavers: A Novel by Lisa Ko

One morning, a young Chinese boy’s mother goes to her job at the nail salon in  New York and never comes home. The rest is a coming-of-age story that follows his journey as he gets adopted, struggles with his identity and memories.  It’s heartbreaking that he doesn’t feel he belongs anywhere.  Ko also tells the story from the mother’s point of view as she tries to make up for her past mistakes.  These two characters struggle between doing what is expected of them by those around them and following their heart and doing what they want to do.  It’s a story of those who leave and those who are left.

The songs he was writing weren’t anything like the ones he and Roland played.  They lacked structure, didn’t cohere in a predictable way.  They were too bare, too vulnerable, they cared too much to be cool.  He no longer wanted to make music that forced itself on you, or tried to be something it wasn’t.  The challenge was not to overstate, but to be honest, unguarded… it felt like he was defrosting a windshield, that the fog would eventually reveal clear glass.

This one is well-written, interesting, and socially relevant. Recommend.

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie

The description of this book is what caused me to grab it and start reading right away: “This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel follows two American academics in London—a young man and a middle-aged woman—as they each fall into unexpected romances.” That sounds just like one of my favorite books, Possession! I’m afraid it ended up being nothing like it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

In alternating chapters, this Pulitzer-prize winner (1985) tells of two professors visiting London for research and their romantic pasts and current entanglements.  Both are strong, likable characters and the writing is so charming and humorous. I will definitely read more of Lurie. Recommend.

This time, however, she had rather hoped for an adventure; and she had, as always on these trips, recast her fantasies to feature British intellectuals rather than American ones. Not of course that she really expected a romantic interlude with any of these well-known dons, critics, folklorists, or writers. But she certainly hadn’t come all the way to London to make it with a sunbelt polyester American left behind by a two-week guided tour, an unemployed sanitary engineer who wears a transparent plastic raincoat and cowboy boots and had never heard of Harold Pinter, Henry Purcell, or William Blake until he was fifty-seven years old and she told him about them.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

An African couple trying to live the American Dream, juxtaposed against an executive from Lehmann brothers in 2007 and his family.  The book touches on relationships, immigration, class, race, and the wavering definition of success.

I read this one very quickly because I couldn’t put it down. It’s very timely with the class divisions in this country.  Definitely recommend.

I don’t like what my life has become in this country.  I don’t know how long I can continue living like this, Neni.  The suffering in Limbe was bad,  but this one here, right now.. it’s more than I can take… It’s everything. Have you not seen how unhappy I’ve been? … How much suffering can a man take in this world, eh?

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