Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright

In The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright, Che (pronounced Shay) is having a difficult time. Her mother has just passed away and has left Che with complicated instructions for her final resting place. Che's mother has asked Che to take her remains on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Sure, they had talked of going when Che knew that her mother wouldn't ever be healthy enough to actually make the trip, but when she is asked to keep her promise, she is surprised by her willingness to follow through with her word. Adding one more curve ball to Che's plans is the sudden illness of her tour guide, forcing Che to join in with a women's tour group. She had intended to make her journey quickly and quietly, but that is not what Che will have. Instead, she is thrown together with eight other women, each with their own story, their own journey to make. And just as in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, we get to hear each pilgrim's story.

This is a lighthearted, lovely book of Chick Lit. I don't always enjoy Chick Lit, but this one was well written and full of interesting characters. Had this just been Che's story I surely would have been quickly bored, but by adding in the other women and their tapestry of tales, Wright added depth and dimension. This book also explores the sometimes complicated relationship between women and their mothers. Che's mother has always been demanding, eccentric and difficult, but as Che watches her succumbing to cancer, she struggles to know how to relate to her before it is too late.

It's hard to be honest in the presence of the dying and it's hard to be honest with your mother under any circumstances. So when your mother is dying, the effect is squared and you enter into the most bizarre netherworld of bullshit.

Che, as our narrator, is really funny and I really like her. I love that she makes the effort to help the reader keep all the characters straight. When we first meet the group of women, it is overwhelming trying to remember who is whom, but Che struggles with the same problem and keeps reminding the reader with funny mnemonics.

Also, while I know that the questions in a reader's guide at the back of a book are usually written by the publisher and shouldn't have much impact on the reader's opinion, the questions provided at the end of The Canterbury Sisters were thoughtful and thought-provoking. I appreciate what well-written questions can add to a book discussion.

I really liked this book and it is perfect for the dog days of summer. This is a travel book that will make you want to take your own journey. 60 miles along the trail to Canterbury sounds exactly like something I would like to do. And with a group of women, too. Read this book and I just know you'll feel the same way. 

It is better to travel well than to arrive.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Talk to Me by Sonia Ellis

Talk to Me by Sonia Ellis is a book about a young teen girl, Sadina, trying desperately to help her 7-year-old sister speak. Maddie speaks just fine at home to her mom, dad and older sister, but as soon as anyone else is around, she is absolutely silent. Maddie has selective mutism and it isn't something she can simply overcome. Sidina worries for her sister and is determined to find a way to help her.

This book was short and moved quickly. It would likely be a good read for a pre-teen. Honestly, I didn't really enjoy it that much. I was briefly engaged, but the storyline took an unlikely turn that seemed forced. There is an element of STEM in this book and so I appreciate that it is attempting to promote those skills, especially among girls. Perhaps you will like this book better than I did. It is the beginning of a series that could be cute.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I loved Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel! It is present day in Toronto when the characters we've just met are faced with the outbreak of a deadly flu pandemic. And by deadly, I mean really deadly. More than 99 percent of the world's population is killed. It happens extremely quickly- from the moment a person begins to feel ill, they have less than forty- eight hours to live. Suddenly, nearly the everyone is dead. There is no one to maintain the electrical grid, causing the lights and all other electricity to switch off. Transportation breaks down as the people hoping to flee their cities to get away from the flu encounter unbreakable traffic jams, drivers dead in their cars. With no law enforcement, looting and violent crime run rampant causing even more deaths. Then the story flashes forward twenty years and we get to see how the world has adjusted, coped, with the new reality. People have survived and they have made new lives for themselves.

One of my favorite things about this book is that we get to see what happens next. So often with post-apocalyptic fiction, we see the event that causes the "end of the world" and we see the chaos, the anarchy, that ensues, but we don't get to see the rebuilding of civilization, however different that may look from the past. In Station Eleven, that is exactly what we get to see. I enjoyed watching how the practicality of life, the things we take for granted, fall apart surprisingly quickly.

We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie... it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

No electricity, no running water, no cell phones, no internet, no transportation other than your own feet. No way to know if the people you love are alive or dead. And no way to reach them either way. It is frankly terrifying. I have little confidence in my own ability to survive and the thought of trying to keep my family alive is even worse. On the other hand, this book does bring up some interesting things to consider about survival, not least of which is the quality of the life we will live if we survive. One set of characters is a traveling troupe of actors and musicians and their motto is taken from an episode of Star Trek Voyager :

Survival is insufficient. 

The only complaint I had about this book was that the transitions between characters was abrupt and rather sharp, but I suppose that adds to the disjointed atmosphere the author was hoping to create. Also, the ending was awfully quick and left me wanting more. Perhaps that is a clever trick on the author's part, but I can't help but hope for a sequel. According to the author's website, that is highly unlikely. The good news is that she has sold the film rights, so we could possibly see this wonderful book on the big screen. If you haven't read this book yet, and I certainly waited too long, then get started now. I loved it.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

I Am Sophie Tucker by Susan and Lloyd Ecker

In 1973, Susan and Lloyd Ecker went on their first date to a Bette Midler concert. They had a wonderful time and especially loved Ms. Midler's Sophie Tucker stories. Over the next forty years, the Eckers married and had three children, but they never forgot Sophie Tucker and so they tried to learn as much about her as they could. Sophie Tucker was a vaudeville star and an extraordinary entertainer during the first half of the twentieth century. As Barbara Walters says, "She was the star attraction". The Eckers spent eight years reading Tucker's scrapbooks and interviewing her family and friends. What resulted from all of their research is I Am Sophie Tucker. According to an interview with the authors in the back of the book, Sophie was meticulous in her record keeping, but she loved to exaggerate and embellish. "At the end, not even Sophie knew the difference between truth and tall tale." The Eckers were unable to verify all of Sophie's stories and so they label their book "a fictional memoir".

I admit I found this confusing because I didn't realize until I had reached the authors' notes in the back of the book that this wasn't completely fictional. I thought I was reading a very well done fictional representation of a fictional character. When I reached the end and realized that a large portion of it was true, it changed my perspective quite a lot. According to the authors, "this volume is 85% fact. The other 15%... who knows?"

Included in this book are photos of Sophie Tucker and many are with her famous friends. Susan Ecker refers to Sophie as "the Forrest Gump of the first half of the 1900s." The whole time I was reading this book, I was thinking that very thing. Every famous person in the early age of the silver screen is in this book: Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, "Bojangles" Robinson, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and many more. If all this is true, Sophie Tucker may be the most entertaining woman of the entertainment world. Ever. And as she says in the Prologue:

...Every word [is] the absolute truth- or even better!

But the entertainment world isn't the only place Sophie made her mark, or her friends. Also mentioned in the pages of this memoir are Arthur Conan Doyle, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Al Capone, J. Edgar Hoover, Harry Houdini, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and Queen Elizabeth. That's a rather varied roster of acquaintances. 

This book is funny and fascinating. There are so many bits that made me laugh. Talking about heading to the west coast for a run of shows, Sophie had this to say of her travels:

The West was mesmerizing. I managed to hit a few of the tourist spots on the way to my first date. I saw the view from the top of Pike's Peak and I even rode down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a donkey. After bearing my load for eight hours, I'm sure they had to shoot that poor beast to put him out of his misery. It's a rare thing to get to kiss your own sorry ass goodbye.

And this about all her hard work to break in to show business:

By 1911, only the guys who built Big Ben had worked as hard as me to make the big time.

The best part of this book is that we get to see how hard Sophie had to work to actually make it. She is certainly no overnight success. She worked hard night and day and employed some very interesting tactics to get the attention of the people who could help her, but never did she give up.

In addition to this book, the first in a trilogy about Sophie's life, Susan and Lloyd Ecker have also created a documentary about her. You can view the official trailer here. I can't recommend enough that you look through the website the Eckers have created,, look at all the amazing photos they have in the gallery and then read this book. It is a fabulous journey through the foundations of music and entertainment as we know them today.