Friday, May 31, 2013

'My Notorious Life'

Controversy has been with us since the beginning of time.  And the new book I've just finished reading is certainly that.

It's very hard to write about the subject of abortion.  Some women have gone through the experience, some totally disagree with that path.  'It's immoral!'  'It's murder!'  And then you have the other side; 'I can't afford children!'  'I don't believe that life begins at conception'.  The reasons coming from both sides are long and passionate.  

Two sides.  Two controversies.  But while reading 'My Notorious Life', the new book written by Kate Manning, I wasn't thinking of the controversy.  I was, instead, thinking about how unfair life was for women, rich and poor, living during the 1800's.

Any attempts at educating women about birth control were thought of as 'smut' and 'immoral'; even distributing pamphlets was done in secret.  Women were supposed to just lay back and let the man have his way.  It was no huge matter that being pregnant with a ninth or tenth child could endanger the woman's (and the child's) health; men didn't care.  Perhaps for those men, women were 'a dime a dozen'.  And the mistresses...I didn't even want to think about that.

But there were women and men in the medical profession who had compassion for women in those dire straits.  The women were midwives, assisting pregnant women during labor.  But there were some who performed other services.  

So that brings me back to 'My Notorious Life', a novel based on fact; it is based partly on the life of Ann Trow Lohman, also know as Madame Restell, a midwife living in Victorian New York.  This is a novel set in a time in which I, as a woman, would not want to live.

Axie Muldoon, the daughter of impoverished Irish immigrants, becomes a hugely successful midwife, who is soon known as 'Madame X'.  Axie recounts her life as a struggling child, who, with her young sister and brother, is forced to beg for food.  But she and her siblings are soon separated from each each other, and Axie finds herself an apprentice to a midwife.  Parlaying the sale of a few bottles of 'Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint', her star rises in her profession, and she and her husband find themselves living among the rich and powerful in New York.  But Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, becomes her enemy, and it takes everything in Axie's arsenal to outwit him and save her and her family from ruin.

The early stages of the novel brought a tear to my eye, but I was impressed with Axie's determination and moral imperative.  The accounts of the poor women who could no longer handle being pregnant for the ninth or tenth time (and burying a few of those babies) tore my heart apart.  It made me grateful to be living in a time when women have free access to birth control and reproductive education, when it's not a 'sin' to possess such knowledge.  

The author's portrayal of Axie's world is so spot-on; I could actually visualize her extreme poverty, the panic she felt when she was taken away from her family, her rise to the mansion in the city.  And her childhood friend, who later became her husband.  Axie is a fierce, passionate character, and beautifully realized.

'My Notorious Life' will certainly stir controversy and passionate discussions, but there is one thing women must consider:  We are fortunate to be living in an era where we can freely talk about personal reproductive choices.  Ms. Manning has taken a courageous step in portraying such a compassionate character.  

But there were so many women who lived so long ago who had no choice (and voice) at all.

Consider yourself lucky.

'My Notorious Life', by Kate Manning, will be published in September 2013 by Scribner.

Monday, May 20, 2013

'Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa'

It's been a while since I've read a truly strange story.  I do reread Gaiman, and once again dipped my toes into H.P. Lovecraft's works.  Of course, there are scores of other strange stories and they liven up my bookish existence.  

But I also love mysteries, and I've found a book that contains a great amount of strangeness and a clever mystery.  It's a book that I found almost impossible to set aside once I hit my stride.  Intensity colors the second half of the story, and questions became theories, and theories became questions.  Vicious cycle.

'Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa', written by Benjamin Constable, is a tad confusing at the beginning, but trust me:  You won't put it down.  At once a story about relationships, secrets, and murder, it evolves into an elaborate treasure hunt, setting the protagonist, Ben Constable (yes, the author used his own name), on a journey that takes him over and under his home city of Paris and then through Manhattan.

Ben and his friend, Tomomi 'Butterfly' Ishikawa, both live in Paris, where they occasionally meet for drinks, smoking, and laughter.  But then Butterfly sends a letter to Ben, telling him that she's killed herself.  She includes instructions about a mysterious treasure hunt, but the deeper Ben digs, the more he discovers about Butterfly's dark past.  

When the truth and Butterfly's strange invention finally came together, I was reluctant to hit that final page.

And it wasn't until I finished that I remembered that the author didn't really describe the physical characteristics of his characters, which, in my opinion, would have slowed down his marvelous storytelling.  But physical descriptions aren't necessary once you get involved (more like obsessed) with this strange, interesting tale.  It will promote great discussions during reading group meetings, and talking about it over a few beers would be fitting.  

Dip your toes into 'Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa' when it's released in early June.

And then tell me how you thought it would end.

'Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa' by Benjamin Constable will be released on June 4, 2013 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

'Knocking on Heaven's Door'

A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist.  ~Stewart Alsop 

There are three guarantees in life:  We are born.  We pay taxes.  We die.

All three get more expensive as time goes by.  Birth used to be a simple thing; usually at home in bed, cared for and supported by midwives and doctors.  Family members milling about in the other room, anxious to see the newborn and comfort the mother.  Taxes...well, we all know about that.  And death.  The act of dying, so much like birth; usually at home in bed, cared for, loved, and supported by family members there to help us on our way to a new life.  My mother died in her own home, and my stepfather died in a hospice.

But now, death isn't so simple.  There is very little dignity left.  We are given so many options, too many choices, and we and our families are left confused, unaware of informed consent.  All are left out in the cold, and the dying are not being heard.

Katy Butler's new book, 'Knocking on Heaven's Door', is based on her acclaimed New York Times Magazine article, and it is a big 'eye-opener', written in a clear, yet passionate style.  It is full of important information that will help guide any of us going through the same experience.

Assuming that her aging parents would die on their own terms, Katy learned that she was very wrong.  Her father, who was sliding into dementia, was fitted with a pacemaker, which only prolonged his misery.  Her mother, on the other hand, was a stubborn, vital, artistic woman, who rebelled against her doctors, and died on her own terms.  The story also centers around the author's love/hate relationship with her parents, and how her father's illness brought them all closer.

Katy's story is one to which we can all relate.  The labyrinth of medical terminology, the questions left unanswered, the anger that overtakes us.  But it is the dying that have no voice.  They are left suffering, unable to convey their own wishes.  It is unfair of the medical community to keep a heart beating when it's owner wants to go gently into the night.

It was a depressing story, but a vital one.

And I'm glad I read it.

'Knocking on Heaven's Door' by Katy Butler, will be published in September 2013 by Scribner.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

'The Bookstore'

Those who know me know that I cannot pass a store that has tables of books sitting out front of it.  My husband totally understands; he will nod his head and point toward a coffee shop, where he'll patiently wait for me.

When our library holds their annual book sale in my city, I am there, waiting in line, anxious to get through the doors and swoop down upon tables of literary treasures.  But it is the little used bookstores that grab my soul.  Stacks and stacks of books, proud towers, calling my name.  And I answer that call with my usual enthusiasm.

I love real books.  I love their smell and feel.  I love the fact that books are always waiting for me on my many bookshelves.  I don't have to download them, or worry if I drop them.  I don't have to experience anger when a book I've downloaded suddenly disappears.  The only thing I like about e-readers is the fact that they light up when darkness surrounds me.  But I don't own such a device (I find them very impersonal); reading a screen for hours at a time hurts my eyes.  When I was working at Borders, I had a customer who used to buy stacks and stacks of books every month.  He told me that he had to look at computer monitors every day, and that reading a real book was soothing, indeed.

Deborah Meyler, author of the new book, 'The Bookstore', has touched upon the love we all feel for real books.  She worked in a bookstore for six years, so she understands the world of those who take great pride in selling the thing we know will never become extinct (some may think they will, but I, for one, do not).

Esme Garland, a young British woman, is studying art history in New York.  She loves the city and her classes, but especially loves her boyfriend, Mitchell, an old-money, handsome, spoiled young man.  Esme has everything going for her...until she learns she is pregnant.  But when Mitchell dumps her before she has a chance to tell him of the pregnancy, she decides that she must find a job to make ends meet.  When she discovers that her favorite used bookstore, The Owl, is hiring, she applies for the job.  As she grows used to the ways of bookselling, she forms an unbreakable bond with the staff and the odd assortment of customers.  But when Mitchell returns and wants her back, she must make a choice that could change everything.

While reading this story, I was so sure, almost certain it would become so simplistic; that it would have a tidy, typical ending.  But Meyler tricked me.  Her writing is lyrical and sublime; only someone who lived in New York could describe it with such love.  And her characters are so spot-on, yet so surprising; from George, the owner of The Owl, surly and studious, yet so warmhearted. And Luke, the guitar-playing assistant, a loner with a conscience.  There are so many others who are drawn so carefully that I wanted more of their backstories.  

If you have worked in a bookstore; if you still work in a bookstore; if you have ever wanted to work in a bookstore, read 'The Bookstore'.  

And keep all bookstores alive.

'The Bookstore' by Deborah Meyler, will be published on August 6, 2013, by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Monday, May 6, 2013

'The Last Word'

Lisa Lutz is insane.  There.  I said.  And I'll say it again and again.

But I don't mean 'crazy' insane.  I mean 'genius' insane.  The kind of insanity that can only be channeled through a great story written with great sarcasm.

Most of you know that I'm a big fan of Lisa's 'Spellman' series, mystery novels that make me (almost) pee my pants from laughing so hard.  Her dialogue is witty, sarcastic, scathing.  The Spellman family dynamic is not like any other.  Trust me on this one; read the books.  You'll be glad you live with a more normal family.  But the Spellmans are exciting.  They are vengeful.  They are hilarious.  And they are unique.

While reading the fifth book in the series, 'Trail of the Spellmans', I heard a rumor that that book would be the final one.  That made me so sad that I tried to send a note to Lisa, lamenting the fact that my world would crumble around me without my Spellman fix.  Alas, I didn't get a reply, but I'm sure she heard from many other Spellman fans.

And she took action, for which I'm so grateful.  With the sixth book in the series set for publication in early July, Lisa has not lost her touch.  Her main protagonist, Isabel Spellman, is as sassy as ever.  Her younger sister, Rae, is still a conniving little....well, fill in the blank.  Her parents are still a bit odd and hilarious, and brother David has given up his high-scale lawyer life to become a stay-at-home father.  But the story has a new addition:  Sydney, David and Maggie's daughter.  She's feisty and spoiled, brainwashed by Grammy Spellman, the grandmother from Hell.

Spellman Investigations has taken a new turn.  Isabel has bought out her family and is now the owner of the family firm.  She learns that her major investor, Mr. Slayter, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and to top it off, Izzy has been accused of embezzling funds from his firm.  But that's not all:  Her control of the company is met with resistance.  She schedules meetings, but no one shows up (except for D., the perennial 'employee-of-the-month').  Her mother and father seem to be having marital problems, and the employment of Grammy Spellman as a receptionist is sure to doom the company (well, you can't entirely blame her).

If you haven't read the Spellman series yet, do so!  They are hilarious, and I guarantee you'll laugh right up to the end of the story.  The characters are so brilliantly drawn that I can imagine having them as neighbors...

...and taking out a restraining order.

The sixth book in Lisa Lutz's hilarious 'Spellman' series, 'The Last Word', will be published in early July 2013 by Simon & Schuster.  I suggest you read it...or I will send Izzy's little sister, Rae, to your home.  You've been warned.