The only likable character in Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky is an apricot standard poodle called Princess, a.k.a. Posey. But that doesn’t mean the book is not a fun read. On the contrary. Like the characters on Seinfeld, the various characters with all their flaws are colorful, individual and even understandable. When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure if the book was a love story, a character study, a mystery, a comedy or a sex romp. Actually, it’s all of these. Each chapter is written in the first person, narrated by one of the six main characters, connected by one degree of separation, which is rather convenient.
Rachel is a student of Zahid, her creative writing professor. Naturally, she has a crush on him and at the end of term, they engage in an inappropriate liaison that she reads too much into and he regrets. Zahid is a beautiful thirty-six-year-old man-child whose contract with the university is finished, so he sublets his New York apartment to Khloe, the twin sister of his friend Kristi, when he has to travel back to Pakistan to visit his dying grandmother. But he has to find a home for his standard poodle while he’s gone, so Rachel agrees to take care of it when she returns home to her privileged family home in Connecticut for the summer. But her parents, Becca and Jonathan have just separated. Jonathan is experiencing his mid-life crisis and moved into town to live with his much-younger pilot girlfriend whose name is—what else—Mandy. Yes. She was named after the Barry Manilow song.
Things start to get complicated when Zahid returns to New York early from Pakistan, just ten days after his departure. Naturally, Khloe refuses to move out of his apartment and she does not want him sleeping on her couch. So he goes to visit Rachel at her mother Becca’s fancy home in Connecticut in search of his dog and hoping to find somewhere to couch-surf for the remainder of the summer. His plan works. But, he gets it on with the lovely Becca which leaves Rachel feeling hurt and left out. Meanwhile, ex-hubby Jonathan isn’t living happily ever after with Mandy, and Khloe and Kristi, despite being twins, are not always compatible. Khloe works in high finance for Rachel’s father, Jonathan. She’s also a lesbian who’s trying to land the affections of her childhood babysitter, Jane. But Jane’s in love with Winnie, who also has a boyfriend. Are you following all this?
Will Zahid pick Rachel or Becca? Or someone else altogether? Will Jonathan and Becca reconcile? Will Khloe find true love? Fortunately, all this intrigue could only happen in a fictional novel, which is why it’s such a delicious and fast read. So, settle into your LaZgirl chair with a glass of wine or a nice cup of tea and enjoy some escapism. It’s not a literary masterpiece but it is a fun ride. I’d rate it 7 out of 10.
Less than a week after the release of Catherine Gildiner’s new book Good Morning, Monster, it has already ranked sixth on The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star’s lists of best-selling Canadian non-fiction this week. I can’t wait for it to be released in the U.S. and hit The New York Times list.
My friend Terry and I attended the launch on September 4th in Toronto and were thrilled to once again meet and talk to this wonderful writer. As a huge fan of her earlier books, I couldn’t wait for this one and it was worth it. Dr. Gildiner was a practising psychologist for twenty-five years before she closed her practice to devote her time to writing. Her three-volume memoir is among the most entertaining and enjoyable books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It amazes me that someone could live a life interesting enough to compile three volumes, and that only takes her to age 25.
Gildiner was born in upper New York State in 1948 to a pharmacist father and a mother who eschewed basic domestic tasks like making meals. From an early age, Gildiner helped her father in his business by accompanying their deliveryman when he delivered prescriptions. Her father passed away while she was still a teenager but her strong work ethic carried her through her studies at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, on to a scholarship stint at Trinity College at Oxford in England and ultimately earning her Ph.D.
As a long-time fan of Catherine Gildiner’s writing, I could hardly wait for Good Morning, Monster to be released because it’s about a subject that I find endlessly fascinating. Having read such wonderful, redemptive stories like Educated by Tara Westover, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and The GreatAlone by Kristin Hannah, it always amazes me how certain people who grow up in abusive, neglectful or toxic environments somehow manage to rise above their disadvantages and achieve what we view as success. Very often, siblings in the same family raised by the same parent(s) do not always rise to the challenge. What makes some people able to overcome and rise like a phoenix while others do not? Sometimes the answer lies in having a mentor, an outside advocate, a role model and for those fortunate enough to afford it when they become adults, a therapist. Others do it entirely under their own steam. It’s a fascinating phenomenen.
Good Morning, Monster is Gildiner’s account of five of her past patients whom she clearly regards and respects as true heroes. Each of these five people endured not just one challenge to overcome but years of abuse and neglect. Reading about Laura, Peter, Danny, Alana and Madelaine is disturbing.
After her mother committed suicide, Laura was abandoned by her father in a rural cottage at the age of eight during a Canadian winter, with a younger brother and sister to look after. It was spring before their situation was uncovered. Peter was a gifted musician who spent most of the first five years of his life alone in a crib in the attic while his parents worked. Danny was deeply affected by being subjected to estrangement from his Indigenous parents at the age of five and spent the next twelve years enduring the horrors of a residential school while his birth identity was beaten out of him. Alana was sexually abused by her grandmother, her father, and his perverted friends for most of her childhood. Madelaine, on the other hand, came from an affluent family but suffered at the hands of a hateful mother who greeted her each day when she was a young child with the words “Good morning, monster”, hence the title of the book.
The tragic fact that vulnerable children are continually and still subjected to the kinds of abuse these people experienced is a sad commentary on our society. We all know there are certain people who should never have children, but they do. In the particular cases Gildiner describes, no child protection authorities, teachers, family or law enforcement officials intervened to protect the welfare of these people when they were only children and, sadly, we can be sure there are far too many similar cases still occurring right under our noses.
I highly recommend everyone read this book for several reasons. First of all, it will hopefully help us recognize signs of abuse or neglect and take appropriate action. Children are so vulnerable and because they love and fear their abusers, they are reluctant to speak up. This book also helps those of us who have never undergone therapy to understand the process, the work involved and the time required. These patients required on average five or six years to peel back all their layers to get at the core of their adult dysfunctionality. According to Gildiner, “Plumbing the unconscious is a bit like deep-sea scuba diving. You can’t rise to the surface too quickly. You have to come up gradually and acclimatize or else you will get the bends.” Excellent analogy. Significantly, Gildiner herself benefited and learned more about her own behaviours after working with these people.
I also learned a few things that I never before considered. Boomer gals were raised to be obedient, deferential women who didn’t rock the boat. It was only after a few years in the workforce and encouragement from the feminist movement that we realized we were being taken advantage of. We started to speak up for ourselves—to understand that our opinions had value, that we deserved to make more money, that we had merit in our own right. I was also surprised to read Gildiner’s take on anger, having spent my entire life suppressing anger in case I was perceived negatively when I displayed anger. Gildiner says: “Anger is a negotiation device that helps us to stand up for ourselves, to say, in effect, ‘Get off my turf; you’re stomping on my sense of self. Then it’s up to the other person to deal with your anger—to decide whether it’s a legitimate problem that requires a change in his or her behaviour. I like that. Of course, extreme or inappropriate anger is another matter altogether.
After you finish reading Good Morning, Monster, you’re going to need something light and funny to offset the horror of her patients’ stories, even though they have positive endings. That’s why I suggest you then read Catherine Gildiner’s earlier three-part memoir. It’s a classic baby boomer life story with so many references boomers can relate to. Her story is cleverly written, engaging and at times hilarious. I particularly enjoyed the third book and when you read it you’ll understand why, but all three are delightful and a must-read.
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Who wouldn’t want to be married to Dr. Toby Fleishman? He’s a successful hepatologist (liver specialist) whose only shortcoming is . . . well . . . he’s short (5 feet 5 inches to be precise). The answer is . . . his wife Rachel, who had such a problem being married to him, she went off the deep end and walked out. Apparently, being married to a successful doctor who doesn’t cheat and loves his children isn’t enough for Rachel. In Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s new (and first) novel Fleishman Is In Trouble, the author explores the state of modern marriage in a can’t-put-it-down story of expectations, rewards, and disappointments.
Marriage is a complicated business and the author mines its ups and downs through the eyes of three main characters, Toby Fleishman, his wife Rachel, and Toby’s long-time friend from their working-in-Israel days, Libby Epstein. A fourth character, Seth, plays a minor role counter-balancing Toby, Rachel and Libby’s marital machinations. Most of the plot takes place over the course of one summer in New York City when life turns upside down for Toby Fleishman. He’s newly separated from Rachel after fifteen years of marriage that produced two children. Toby has moved from their fancy uptown condo to a worn-down apartment with poor amenities and non-functioning air-conditioning. The only bright spot in his life is his seemingly endless opportunities for sex as a result of joining an online dating site. Even though Rachel may no longer want him, there are many single and divorced women who can’t seem to get enough of his charms. His sex life has never been so abundant or so varied, and his height is no obstacle. He’s enjoying an absolute smorgasbord of sexual adventures.
Early one morning, Rachel drops the kids off at Toby’s apartment ahead of the planned time in their carefully arranged schedule, then she disappears. For weeks. Toby cannot reach her through her phone, at her apartment, or at her job where she owns and runs a very profitable and high-profile talent agency. In a classic example of role reversal, Toby is now faced with all the problems that come with being a single parent, reassuring his 8-year-old son, Solly that his mother is still alive and loves him, while managing the temperamental moods and demands of his 12-year-old daughter, Hannah. Toby struggles with juggling day-camp, sleep-away camp, tween angst, and temper tantrums while trying to coordinate feeding his kids, organizing sitters and still trying to keep himself upwardly mobile at the hospital where he works.
The departure of Toby’s wife Rachel leaves him even more bitter and angry than he was before the separation when they were fighting constantly. The story is told through the voice of Toby’s friend Libby Epstein who has her own personal check-list of disappointments and insecurities. Libby was a writer for a men’s magazine, and also married with children. I found this first-person narrative by Libby to be a bit confusing at times when the author jumps between describing Toby’s situation in the third person, then switches to her own voice.
The reader is consumed with sympathy for Toby. His wife Rachel is a bitch. She’s a social climber, neglectful of their children, overly ambitious, self-centred and her constant anger makes her hard to be around. The author writes in a compelling voice for Toby. But, as we all know, there are always two sides to every story. The tone, the vocabulary and the emotional struggles while masculine are relatable, however, this is a strongly feminist novel. Despite my sympathies for Toby, I found myself thinking, “Now you know what most women are up against, particularly single mothers”. Brodesser-Akner is a master manipulator of the reader’s emotions while sneaking her feminist message into the plot in a very impactful manner.
As a counter-point to all the complications surrounding marriage, Toby and Libby’s friend Seth has remained steadfastly single, living a hedonistic lifestyle. He runs through women like they’re a disposable commodity, which in the context of his life, they are. Love and marriage are examined from all sides. There are plenty of philosophical questions, “Are you supposed to want to get married? Or are you just supposed to marry the person you’re into when you decide it’s time to get married?” The reader is left to draw her own conclusions. In his quest for a wife, Toby’s only requirement was that she wouldn’t be crazy. That’s a pretty low bar and he married far above his criteria. So how did it go so far off the rails?
There’s so much more to say about this book but the bottom line is I couldn’t put it down. It’s hard-hitting, intelligently written, a bit raunchy and clearly deserving of being on The New York Times bestselling list, where it currently now ranks. I can see it being a book club favourite and a topic of discussion for feminists and traditionalists alike. I’d rate Fleishman Is In Trouble by first-time author Taffy Brodesser-Akner as 9 out of 10. I’m pretty sure you too won’t be able to put it down and I look forward to more novels by this talented writer.
When a friend mentioned her book club was currently reading Cemetery Road by Greg Iles, it reminded me of how much I’d enjoyed reading his Mississipi Blood trilogy last year. Unfortunately, I never got around to reviewing it in BOOMERBROADcast. The earlier series was an amazing look inside complicated lives in the American south. Like his earlier books, Cemetery Road is set in Mississippi. As a native of Natchez, Iles has a deep and personal understanding of southern culture, prejudices, and social structure with all its associated values and flaws. As with Mississippi Blood, I couldn’t put Cemetery Road down – once I got into it.
When I first started reading Cemetery Road I was confronted with so many dead bodies and dark plot possibilities that I set the book aside and read another one instead. I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but when I picked it up again a couple of weeks later, I was hooked. At more than 600 pages (depending on the font size set on your e-reader) it’s a hefty read. The entire plot covers a span of only a few days so there’s a lot of detail, dialogue and description. The title refers to the road leading out of town. “No matter where you’re going, you either cross it or end up taking it at least part of the way.” It becomes an integral part of the plot development.
Chapter 1 which is less than half a page sets the tone for the entire book. “I never meant to kill my brother. I never set out to hate my father. I never dreamed I would bury my own son. Nor could I have imagined that I would betray the childhood friend who saved my life, or win a Pulitzer Prize for telling a lie.” From that, the story of Marshall McEwen and his complicated life unfolds.
The story begins with the murder of Dr. Buck Ferris who played the part of surrogate father to McEwen when he was growing up. Ferris was a community-minded archeologist who had uncovered five-thousand-year-old Indian artifacts and human remains on the site of a proposed paper plant alongside the Mississippi River in Bienville, McEwen’s home town. Ferris’s discovery could jeopardize the construction of the new plant by freezing any activity until a full archeological study of the site had been carried out. This was not acceptable to the established business community of Bienville.
Marshall McEwen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington journalist who has returned to his home town to attend to family matters that he had been ignoring for years. His father, who owns and runs the local newspaper, The Watchman, is dying and Marshall needs to be there to support his mother and manage the paper during his father’s illness. He soon finds himself embroiled in a rekindled romance with the wife of his childhood best friend. But, the greater threat to his safety and well-being may be the group of local businessmen who call themselves The Poker Club. This cabal of political, business and social heavy-weights have controlled all aspects of local life since their ancestors originally founded the group after the civil war. The bloodlines of hate and greed run deep.
In order to obtain justice for the murder of Buck Ferris, Marshall McEwen must take on The Poker Club. The implications, strategies, and fallout from his actions are major. Illicit love affairs, past and present are revealed. Decades of criminal activity are uncovered including treason at a national level. Compromises and deals are negotiated, agreed to and then promises are broken. Lives are viewed as minor currency and old southern loyalties are challenged. A book club even plays a pivotal role in the plot and boomers will enjoy the cameo appearance in the story by Jerry Lee Lewis. (I didn’t even realize he was still alive!)
The author keeps us engaged from beginning to end. Just when we think things are settling down, he throws in a new twist and we’re off and running again. Iles’s books seem to have similar threads—journalism and newspapers, smart female lawyers, southern culture and values, a local heritage group of bad guys who run things, a remote hunting lodge, corrupt local police, strong personal bonds, and good-guy underdogs who are committed to justice. It all adds up to a fun run to the finish line for crime-thriller aficionados. It’s definitely R-rated, for those of you who care about that. I’d rate Cemetery Road 9 out of 10 and I’ll definitely keep reading his books.
Disclosure: If you order from any of these links to Amazon, you will get their best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you.
Reading a good book is much like letting a delicious chocolate melt in your mouth. The anticipation alone is exciting but the real gratification begins as soon as you pop it into your mouth. Then, the pleasure mounts as you allow the outer layer of chocolate to slowly melt, revealing a creamy strawberry centre or a nutty cluster that you can chew on and make it last longer. It’s an experience to be savored. Am I getting too Forrest Gump-y? I thought of that analogy when I considered the path that led me to read Sarah Haywood’s novel The Cactus. I first heard about the book as a result of reading Reese Witherspoon’s Whiskey In A Teacup, which I absolutely loved, and bought copies for friends. That book made me aware of Witherspoon’s book club which ultimately led to reading several books she recommended, including The Cactus. Getting there was a leisurely, delicious process that I genuinely savoured.
Followers of BOOMERBROADCAST will know already that I’m a confirmed fan of British television and British authors. For those of you who enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is Doing Fine (which I read twice), you’ll love The Cactus. It’s the quirky story of Susan Green, a 45-year-old single woman with major control issues, who lives and works in London at a statistics-related job that suits her somewhat anal personality. Susan is also a trained lawyer who opted to not practise after graduating from law school.
In a stroke of double jeopardy, Susan has just lost her mother and unexpectedly finds herself pregnant by her long-term friend-with-benefits, that she has no intention of marrying. When she decides to keep the baby and raise it as a single mother, she envisions life falling into the neat, orderly patterns that she has worked hard to develop throughout her life. But life doesn’t always go according to plan.
Susan’s co-workers are delighted about her expected baby—they’re surprised and pleased she has gentler aspects to her personality that weren’t immediately evident. The collection of cactus plants she keeps on her desk is a metaphor for her life. Thus, the subheading, “It’s never too late to bloom” which reminds me of another meme, “Bloom where you’re planted” which is a personal favourite of mine.
The book, however, is not about motherhood and the joys of giving birth. It’s a character study of a lonely, middle-aged woman with little experience in or tolerance for life outside her carefully defined parameters. When life’s inevitable complications arise, she approaches them with naive optimism and calculated plans for solutions.
As if she doesn’t already have her hands full with the prospect of a baby on the way, she is confronted with another major issue. When her mother dies she inexplicably leaves their family home in Birmingham to her worthless younger brother, Ed. Susan is appalled to learn that their mother, who always favoured her weak (by her standards) brother, stipulated in her will that Ed can live in the family home until he sells it or dies. This hardly seems fair so Susan sues her brother for her half-share.
As she prepares her case against her brother, she negotiates the future relationship between her unborn baby and its father, whose personality is as anal as Susan’s. They’re both overly self-possessed and approach life’s challenges with logical thinking which isn’t always conducive to how real life works.
Most families have secrets and the Green family is no exception. The story takes place over a period of less than a year, beginning during the early months of her pregnancy. Her brother’s temporary room-mate, Rob, provides a buffer between the siblings and their mutual dislike of each other. While understanding and supporting Ed’s unconventional lifestyle, Rob is also sympathetic to Susan’s dilemma and tries to help her. More complications arise.
Her lack of a sense of humour is mistaken for an actual sense of humour which is actually quite humourous. Susan’s life which is set mainly in London and Birmingham reminded me so much of Eleanor Oliphant’s carefully ordered, albeit misguided existence. Which is why I loved this book and I think you will too. I’d rate it 8 out 10.
Disclosure: If you order any of these books from Amazon, you will receive their best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you.
Well! When I started reading Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky I must confess the title led me to expect a family saga along the lines of The Thornbirds, or perhaps a story about the American wild west. Obviously, I hadn’t done my homework about the author. Kate Atkinson is in fact a contemporary British crime writer with many novels to her credit that feature a recurring main character/hero by the name of Jackson Brodie.
Brodie is an ex-cop who hung out his own shingle as a private investigator after he left the force. Like Father Brown, Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, Brodie has an uncanny knack for getting himself in the middle of nasty crimes that have unlikely connections to people he knows. Big Sky is set in the northeast of England in smaller, working-class towns where everybody seems to know everyone else. Yorkshire and its local culture are integral threads woven throughout the story.
We’re first introduced to three golfing buddies whose friendships go back a number of years. They come from different backgrounds and the ever-present British class system has a lingering effect on their ongoing relationship. For a variety of reasons, they have a tenuous loyalty to each other. Known as The Three Muskateers, Stephen, Andy, and Tommy have legitimate businesses that front more nefarious goings-on behind the scenes. Who would ever think that a lawyer, hotel owner and haulage entrepreneur would be the kingpins in a network of human trafficking and other sordid activities? The fourth member of their golfing foursome, Vince, by virtue of his social standing and background is not included in their business activities, but because he once saved the life of Stephen when they were teenagers, he’s accepted on the periphery of their social activities.
Stephen the lawyer is married to Sophie, a socially presentable partner. Andy and Tommy are each on wife number two. Andy’s wife Rhoda is adequate for his needs and Tommy’s new wife Candy is a walking, talking Barbie-doll with a secret past. Vince’s wife Wendy has kicked him out of the house. He’s lost his job and company car and he’s living in an unsavory little flat pondering what to do with the rest of his life. Then Wendy is murdered. Whodunnit? Even Jackson Brodie has a string of bad marriages and relationships that he’s trying to juggle to accommodate the needs of his two different children from different mothers. Lots of juicy subplots that include the various children of the characters are tossed in to sweeten the pot.
Kate Atkinson is a marvelous writer. She has a subtle sense of humour and her characters are exquisitely detailed, right down to what they like to eat. The good guys and bad guys are fairly evident right from the beginning but the reader is drawn along in a steady plot development that keeps us engaged right until the end. Will the human trafficking ring be exposed and the perpetrators brought to justice? What secrets do the characters have? Atkinson probably could have finished the story a bit earlier. There’s a story-line at the end that I could have lived without but perhaps it’s a leadup to a future book. Now that I know Atkinson’s stock-in-trade, I’ll definitely be reading more of her books. I loved this one, despite its overabundance of coincidences and convenient overlaps. We keep hoping the bad guys are going to get their comeuppance but the suspense lies in the series of events that gets us there. I’d rate Big Sky 8 out of 10 and I’m looking forward to reading more of her books.