Monday, March 27, 2023

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen 


The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (2018) is a bestselling domestic thriller that bears a strong resemblance to The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins.  Once again we have a 30 something ex-wife named Vanessa who could not get pregnant, started drinking and is now divorced from her handsome ex-husband Richard who has taken up with Nellie, Vanessa's 20 something replacement.  Vanessa has started following the happy couple determined to stop the marriage. Vanessa appears to be jealous, unbalanced and desparate to get Richard back. 

But all is not as it seems and around page 150 of The Wife Between Us we are hit with a twist that is quite well done.  The problem though is that after page 150 we still have 230 more pages to go and for me the book dragged.  The authors after the twist spend the rest of the book focusing on Vanessa as she tells us about what went wrong with her marriage to Richard.  As expected he is far from the prince she thought she was marrying.  He's abusive and controlling.  He spies on Vanessa and when she becomes aware of who he is she wants out but Richard is very wealthy with connections and has made it clear that no one walks out on him.

It can be dangerous to leave an abusive spouse since the abuser may come after you and so Vanessa comes up with a plan to make herself as undesirable as possible so that Richard will be the one who wants out.   She lets her appearance go.  She embarrasses him at company functions by pretending to be drunk.  She notices that Richard has a beautiful young assistant and goes about trying to bring them together so that Richard will have even more incentive to leave.   She fills a notebook with her interactions with Richard and the different ways he is trying to gaslight her and by the end of the novel I was wondering who is crazier, Richard or Vanessa.  And of course Vanessa's plan works too well.   Richard does leave her but now her replacement is in danger. 

I think the domestic thriller genre has gone overboard these days with unreliable narrators and "twists, twists and more twists" as one reviewer described it.  And The Wife Between Us ends with a final twist which in my opinion added nothing.  That said, this novel did receive a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.  But for me the domestic thriller, at least the books I've read, needs to get back to writing straightforward and plausible dramas which in the right hands will not need as many gimmicks to keep the reader hooked.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy by Letty Cottin Progrebin

I don't read as much non-fiction as I should but when I do I am always on the lookout for a good memoir.  And so when my friend Iris recommended Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy by Letty Cottin Progrebin (2022) I was interested.  Iris has never steered me wrong and I found Shanda to be a very honest, well written, and thought-provoking memoir in which the author reveals much about the role that fear, shame and thus keeping secrets has played in her life and the lives of her family members going back generations.  

Shanda is the yiddish word for shame and Letty grew up during a time when people did not talk about divorce, addiction, teen pregnancy, depression, financial matters and so many other topics.  What would the neighbors think or one's employer if they found out you had gotten divorced or were seeing a therapist or if you were a single parent or if you were gay etc etc. 

Letty says that her family was particularly prone to secrets partly because of the times they lived in, the 1940's and 1950's, but also because as Jewish immigrants leaving lands with terrible histories of anti-semitism and oppression keeping secrets was often necessary to survive.  Even in better times one had to be careful:

"The Elightenment enabled European Jews to live and work among their country’s majority population, though not always in comfort or safety. Their social status and religious liberty continued to depend on the whims of the powerful and the kindness of their neighbors. In good times, they could display their Hanukkah menorahs in their windows as tradition decrees; in bad times, they lit their candles behind closed doors"

Letty's grandmother at age 19 living in Ukraine did not want to marry the much older man her parents had arranged for her.  And so on her wedding night, before the marriage was consummated, she climbed out of the window and ran off with her true love, Letty's grandfather.  But her relatives here in America kept it silent that their  grandmother, however briefly, had a first husband.  Back then it would have been shameful to reveal even though today we rightly see it as courageous.   Letty discovered this secret as a young woman when her aunt accidently referred to grandma's first marriage.

And that's the thing about secrets.  Sometimes they are necessary but other times they do more harm than good and nowhere is that more true than in the secret Letty's parents kept from her and which she only discovered when she was 12 and a cousin blurted it out at a family gathering.  It forms the core of the book and as Letty writes: 

"Learning the truth about my family on the beach in Winthrop reordered my world. Betrayal became my burden, gullibility my shame. If those closest to me could lie without conscience or consequence, then anyone could misrepresent anything, and everything was up for grabs. I’m not saying I became pathologically suspicious, just inclined toward doubt. I ask a lot of questions .... a psychologist friend once overheard my conversation with a new acquaintance and likened it to “an intake interview.” If that’s an insult, I’ll cotton to it rather than be blindsided ever again"

I won't reveal the secret because I don't want to spoil the element of suprise in the book.  But what I will say is that the secret that Letty's parents, Ceil and Jack, were keeping is not shameful at all and nowadays no one would care.  But to keep their secret other secrets had to be constructed and that's where the damage occurred. 

I may be giving the impression that Letty spends all her time in Shanda focusing on her relatives and their secrecy and is tight lipped about her own life.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  She is very honest about her life and reveals quite a number of her own secrets and it makes for a memoir that is fascinating and will cause the reader  to think about their own families and what's been hidden  I know it did for me.

Thank you Iris for recommending Shanda.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

John Jakes and the Kent Family Chronicles

I was sad to hear about the death of the novelist John Jakes who passed away on March 11, 2023.  He was a prolific writer best known for his Kent Family Chronicles series of historical novels. There were 8 books in this series where we follow the fictional Kent Family and their descendents from the American Revolution to the 1890's Gilded Age. 

I read Jakes' first novel The Bastard (reviewed on Feb 19, 2019).  It was well written and I learned a good deal about the lead up to the American Revolution.  John Jakes worked history into his novels seamlessly knowing that the characters and the plot were key and it is fascinating to follow a family like the Kents through many generations and see how their grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren turned out.

It was always my plan to read deeper into the Kent series and now I plan to.  John Jakes will be missed.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Waiting For the Barbarians by C P Cavafy

An interesting poem by the Greek poet C. P Cavafy (1863-1933). His poetry never got the attention it deserved during his lifetime because as a gay man he couldn't really publish his poems but fortunately since his death his poems are receiving wide critical acclaim.  Here is one of his most famous poems: 

Waiting for the Barbarians by C. P. Cavafy

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

About a year or two ago my fellow book blogger Jane at her excellent website Reading, Writing, Working, Playing reviewed Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (2018).  Jane gave this novel a positive review and I agree.  Finding Langston is an award winning young adult novel.  It's geared towards middle school kids but can be read and appreciated at any age.

The book is set in 1946 and the narrator, eleven year old Langston, has recently moved with his father from Alabama to Chicago.  Langston is having a tough time.  Chicago is a big intimidating city and the kids at his new school are mean.

But mostly, Langston misses his mother who recently passed away.  His father works hard and is exhausted at night.  He doesn't talk much and is dealing with his own grief at his wife's death.  Langston, therefore, is on his own spending his days going to school, dodging the bullies, and missing his Mom and the way things used to be with his family in Alabama.

And then one day Langston spots a library and decides to go inside.  He sees a book by a writer with his first name and becomes curious.  It's a book of poetry by Langston Hughes and he is transformed.  From there he goes on to look up other writers from the Harlem Renaissance and by the time the book ends young Langston has grown in so many ways.

Finding Langston is about the power of books to change our lives as they did for eleven year old Langston.  He found the poet he was named after and in doing so he found himself.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Ray Bradbury Reading Challenge And How It's Going

I've been taking the Ray Bradbury Reading Challenge for two weeks now and it's going very well.  And so I wanted to share some of what I have been reading and learning.  I won't list all of the poems, essays and short stories I read.  Instead I will just note my favorites.

Poems - I have been using Harold Bloom's Best Poems of the English Language.  This collection of poetry starts in the Middle Ages and ends in the late 20th century and I am working through this list in chronological order making sure only to select short poems.  And what I am learning is that being a poet in Tudor England could be a dangerous profession.  Three of the poets I read wound up in the Tower of London.  Sir Thomas Wyatt, Chidiock Tichborne and Robert Southwell S.J.  It was a brutal time. 

Regarding my favorite poems I would recommend three:  Edmund Spencer's One Day I Wrote Her Name which is perfect for Valentine's Day.  William Blake's Chimney Sweeper poem When My Mother Died I Was Very Young. There is a strong Victorian/Charles Dickens vibe to this poem about the lives of young boys, many of them orphans, forced into chimney sweeping work.  And I also recommend Walt Whitman's poem O Captain My Captain, a moving tribute to Abraham Lincoln. 

Essays - I read so many fine essays.  Joan Didion's On Keeping A Notebook, Vivian Gornick's The Anti-Social Novelist which is her review of a recent biography of John Steinbeck but a book review by Vivian is always so much more.  My favorite essay would have to be Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Dialogue of A Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress in which they analyze the novel Jane Eyre:

"It seems not to have been primarily the coarseness and sexuality of Jane Eyre which shocked Victorian reviewers but ... it's anti-Christian refusal to accept the forms customs and standards of society ... They were disturbed not so much by the proud Byronic sexual energy of Rochester as by the pride and passion of Jane herself ... In other words what horrified the Victorians was Jane's anger.

Short Stories - I had 3 favorites:  A Coward by Guy de Maupassant about a foolish young man who in an effort to impress his friends challenges another man to a duel.  I also really liked The School-Teacher's Story by Mary Wilkins Freeman and In Dark New England Days by Sarah Orne Jewett  Both of these stories are set in 19th century New England and have a really nice gothic spooky aspect to them.  

So I do recommend this challenge provided you choose short poems and though I may be breaking the Bradbury rules I have expanded my view of essays to include articles in magazines and book reviews.  I don't know if I will continue posting about the challenge but I did want to share a bit of what the experience has been like

Finally let me thank the great Ray Bradbury for this challenge.  He is sadly no longer with us but his excellent novels and short stories live on. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

"Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father".

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a classic of world literature.  Since it's publication in 1958 this critically acclaimed novel has been translated into 50 languages, been read by millions and is taught in high schools and colleges worldwide.   The book is set in Nigeria during the late 19th century in the years just prior to the arrival of the missionaries and colonialism which would end the culture and customs of the Igbo community.

Chinua Achebe has said that in writing Things Fall Apart he was partly responding to novels like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  Achebe wanted people to know that there was a vibrant and worthwhile culture in rural villages like Umuofia.  He does this beautifully in Things Fall Apart.  

But Achebe doesn't sugar coat life in Umuofia.  Some of the customs can be quite violent and women are definitely second class citizens.  The central character in Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo.  He is a leader in the village, admired for his strength and courage.  Okonkwo's life has been determined by his intense desire not to be like his father, a man he regards as weak and idle.  Okonkwo is a man with a fierce temper.  His wives and children are afraid of him.  But change is coming to Umuofia and Okonkwo is powerless to stop it.

"There were many men and women in Umuofia who did not feel as strongly as Okonkwo about the new dispensation. The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia.  And even in the matter of religion there was a growing feeling that there might be something in it after all, something vaguely akin to method in the overwhelming madness"

It can be hard to convey in a review how brilliant this novel is, except to say that from the very first page I knew I was holding something special in my hands and that feeling carried through right up till the end of the book.  I highly recommend Things Fall Apart.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Ray Bradbury Challenge

"I'll give you a program to follow every night, a very simple program…one poem a night, one short story a night, one essay a night, for the next 1,000 nights. From various fields: archaeology, zoology, biology, all the great philosophers of time, comparing them…But that means that every night then, before you go to bed, you’re stuffing your head with one poem, one short story, one essay—at the end of a thousand nights you’ll be full of stuff, won’t you?” - Ray Bradbury

So I have decided to take the Ray Bradbury Challenge.  Not for a thousand nights but from now till the end of the year.  I started yesterday and it's amazing what you learn even in two days from taking this challenge.  And the best part is that poems, essays, short stories are easily available online at no cost and even better if you have a Kindle unlimited subscription.

Here are the choices I made yesterday, Jan 31, 2023, and my thoughts on what I read:

Poem: Lament for the Makaris by William Dunbar (1460 -1530) - recommended by Harold Bloom in his book Great Poems of the English Language.  It's a powerful poem but you have to have a modern translation because it's written in an Old English style which I found very hard to decipher.

Essay: On The Morning After the Sixties by Joan Didion (1934 - 2021)  This essay published in 1970 is included in Didion's collection of Essays The White Album.  It's my first time reading Joan Didion and what a marvelous writer she is .  

Short Story:  The Boarded Window by Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) This is considered a classic short story by Ambrose Bierce, often taught in schools and available free online.  It's a very creepy tale, reminiscent of Poe, and should be included in the horror genre. 

I am also keeping a journal so that I will remember the poem, short story and essay I read for each day throughout 2023.  For example, in today's challenge I have decided to go with:  

Poem: They Flee From Me by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503- 1542)  Essay: Beware of Feminist Lite by Chimamanda Ngozi (born 1977)  The Fly by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)  

It's my first time reading Wyatt, Ngozi and Mansfield and I have found out some interesting things.  Sir Thomas Wyatt was a great poet but also an Ambassador in the Tudor Court during the reign of Henry VIII and he was close to Anne Boleyn.  How close is up for debate but when Anne Boleyn was arrested, Thomas Wyatt was also thrown into the Tower of London.  Fortunately, Wyatt had connections and so was released from prison.  Here is a passage from They Flee From Me which is frank in terms of Wyatt's relations with women but also the turmoil that must have been going on at the Tudor Court:

"They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,

With naked foot stalking in my chamber.

I have seen them, gentle, tame, and meek,

That now are wild, and do not remember

That sometime they put themselves in danger

To take bread at my hand; and now they range,

Busily seeking with a continual change"

And so thank you Ray Bradbury and when in the days, weeks and months ahead a poem, essay or short story really grabs me I will be sure to discuss it here at Reading Matters.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

It's Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillan

This review will contain spoilers.

It's Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillan published 2020 is a novel about female friendship, aging, children, husbands, finances and how life doesn't have to be over when we reach our senior years. The four friends at the center of this novel: Loretha, Korynthia, Lucky and Sadie are in their late 60's.  They live in Pasadena and have known each other since high school.  A fifth friend, Pookie, lives out of state but joins the group via zoom when the friends have their monthly dinner to catch up and offer each other advise and support.

One of the friends, Loretha, narrates the novel and when we meet Loretha her life is going well.  She and her husband Carl have a great marriage. They are financially secure.  No serious health issues.  Things are not perfect of course.  Loretha worries about her daughter's drinking but for the most part Loretha's life is in a good place

And then while they are on vacation Carl dies suddenly from a heart attack.  Loretha is devastated and a few months later she learns she has diabetes.  Her friends' lives have hit a rough patch as well.   Lucky's husband wants a divorce. Korynthia has a son who is hooked on opiods. Sadie is involved with the married pastor at her church and Pookie has been hiding the truth about her cancer diagnosis.

But the title of the book It's Not All Downhill From Here assures us that happy endings are coming, maybe not sadly for Pookie but certainly for Lucky, Loretha, Sadie and Korynthia.  And I guess that's why I had a problem with the book which is humorous and touching but for me unrealistic.  Take Loretha for example, it's not just that as the novel progresses she begins to get her diabetes under control by sensible eating and that her daughter decides to go into rehab and deal with her depression.  These two changes in Loretha life are realistic and inspiring.

But the good fortune doesn't end there.  Loretha by the time the novel ends has also opened up a new beauty shop that becomes the hit of the neighborhood.  She reunites with her sister who she has been estranged from for years.  Her son, his wife and their children decide to move back to Pasadena from Japan where they were living so the family can all be together.  And, you guessed it, a handsome man in Loretha's exercise class asks her out for coffee.  Now, I believe at any age people can turn their life around but to this extent?  And the lives of Loretha's friends are also going swimmingly by the time the novel comes to a close.

Terry McMillan is a talented writer.  I loved Waiting To Exhale which was a huge bestseller in the 1990's.  But It's Not All Downhill From Here for me was a letdown.  That said this book did receive a starred review from Publisher's Weekly and thousands of positive reviews at so you might want to give the book a try and judge for yourself.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The New Year

We all make New Year's Resolutions but in past years my resolutions have always fallen by the wayside.  So this year I am sharing my plan.  I have come up with 5 rules to be done daily throughout 2023.  I know that sounds daunting but actually these are simple rules that I should be following daily but don't.  And so, my New Year's  resolutions for 2023 are: 

1.  Take my medication and Vitamin D daily

2.  Read a passage from the Bible each night

3.  No book or journal buying in 2023 - I know this is going to be a tough one but I already have enough reading matter for several years and there is always the library.

4.  Housework Monday - Friday - If we do about a half hour of cleaning Monday through Friday it doesn't build up and become so overwhelming.

5.  No eating after 8:00 pm except tea or coffee

To remember to do these rules each day I have started a journal in which each morning I will write down the 5 rules with a little box next to each.  Then in the evening I will put a check mark next to each of the 5 rules I followed.  I will also write about how the day went and did I follow the 5 rules and if I didn't follow a particular rule, why not?   It's a to do list when you think about it and a day planner will work as well.  But it's a way each day for me to hold myself accountable.  

I wish everyone a very Happy and Healthy New Year!