Five by Five
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
I was hesitant to start the May Book Lushes selection because I'd heard murmurings on Twitter about what a jerk the titular character is. An interwoven set of short stories that feels more like a novel than an anthology, the book examines the life of abrasive retired schoolteacher Olive from various angles. Olive is in most of the stories, sometimes as a very minor character, but even the ones in which she barely appears teach us something about her and her life. By the end I still felt that Olive was a jerk, but I didn't find her entirely unlikable. Some of the characters were beautifully written (especially Olive's husband Henry), and the book made me want to write fiction again.
Angels, Vampires, & Douche Bags by Carla Collins
This one was pitched as a "comedic motivational book," and I almost passed on it due to my distate for motivational books of any kind. It turned out to be more of an advice-meets-memoir book. In it, Collins explains how she divides the world into three kinds of people -- the angels who help and support us, the vampires who suck out our money or energy or emotional reserves, and the douchebags who act douchebaggy. She weaves in stories of angels, vampires, and douchebags from her own life and shares anecdotes that don't always relate to the theme of the book but nearly always amuse. The pace of the writing was often frenetic, as if I was reading the transcript of a stand-up act instead of a book, and while it was a bit tiring at times it did keep things interesting. I got a good chuckle every few pages, too.
The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
The suicide of a patient and the discovery of her father's drastically failing health throw therapist Zee Finch's life into turmoil, and she begins to question whether she wants to put things back in order. A flawed, well-written character, Zee deals with the new reality of her father's decline while trying to cope with the lingering trauma of her mother's suicide during Zee's thirteenth summer. Family secrets, a new and slightly mysterious lover, and the magic-tinged setting of Salem, Massachusetts blend together to create a rich, enveloping story that ultimately blurs the lines between coincidence and fate. (I also enjoyed her first book, The Lace Reader.)
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
This was June's Book Lush selection and another one I wasn't sure about but decided to try. Just like before, I ended up really enjoying the book, which is a retelling of the Biblical story of the family of Jacob and specifically his daughter Dinah. Diamant expands the story of Leah and Rachel, the first two wives of Jacob. I always felt sorry for Leah, the woman Jacob was tricked into marrying before being allowed to marry the woman he really wanted, her sister Rachel. In The Red Tent, Diamant re-imagines the relationship so that Leah and Rachel came up with the switch themselves, and gives Leah the role of respected wife and mother. Rachel is styled as a skilled midwife who has a gift for saving other women's babies while struggling to conceive and carry her own. The book begins with remembrances of Dinah's childhood with her four mothers -- her birth mother Leah and three aunts -- and eleven brothers (Jacob's last son, Benjamin, is born after Dinah leaves the family's camp). Dinah finds and loses love, bears a son into difficult circumstances, and grows into her own as a midwife of great skill. Her life is hard and often tragic, but the story is ultimately a rewarding read.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Book Lushes have had such a great track record that I decided to go back and pick up February's book, which I skipped because back then I had a teeny tiny baby and zero reading time. So far, The Help is my favorite of the books the group has voted to read. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, The Help is largely the story of two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, and of Skeeter, the white woman who decides to write about what life is really like for black maids in white households in the Jim Crow days. The voices are distinct and authentic, the story is intense and well-crafted. I'd call this one a page-turner, for sure, and I feel like it really did live up to all the hype I'd heard about it. It's a wonderful book.