The Muralist – B.A. Shapiro

shapiro_muralist_jkt_hrAlizee is a painter working for Roosevelt’s WPA when she vanishes in 1940. Tormented by her inability to get visas for her Jewish family living in German-occupied France, Alizee’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Worried friends, fellow artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner, don’t know what to do. Seventy years later, Alizee’s niece, Danielle, uncovers paintings hidden behind the works of these famous Abstract Expressionists which may hold the answer to Alizee’s mysterious disappearance. Switching back and forth between pre-WWII and today, the author captures the inner workings of New York’s art scene and the first truly American school of painting. Through her poignant description of Alizee’s descent into madness, she also manages to highlight the forgotten plight of European refugees who were not granted asylum in the United States. What happened to Alizee and was she the impetus that spurred her fellow painters to greatness? An interesting work of fiction for adults that stays with you long after you’ve finished the book.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson

major-pettigrews-last-stand-book-cover-imageMajor Ernest Pettigrew, 68, a despondent widower, lives in a rural English village. He has one son, Roger, who is self-important, indulged and thoughtless. The Major deplores the lack of manners in the modern age. Roger, who works as a London banker, is obsessed with success and shuns his father’s Britain. The story begins when the Major answers the door in shock having just heard of his brother’s death. He’s so upset he doesn’t realize he’s wearing his wife’s house coat. The woman at the door, Mrs. Ali, 58, a widow a of Pakistani origin, pretends not to notice and makes tea. They bond when she describes her nephew who has many traits like the Major’s son. A late-in-life romance blossoms between the two despite racial prejudice. People in the village call Mrs. Ali “that Pakistani woman” and act like she’s a foreigner even though she was born in England. In the end, the Major must decide between society, and the woman he loves. He must make his last stand.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple

bernadetteThe writing is fresh and engaging in this novel following main character Bee Branch who pieces together emails, letters and other documents to find her mother, Bernadette Fox, who is missing. Bee’s father is a Microsoft executive; her mother a former award-winning architect. To many, Bernadette seems strange and crazy, but to Bee she simply walks to the beat of her own drum and has been a great mom. But when Bernadette’s behavior goes from bad to worse, the family stages an intervention causing her to flee.  Eventually, they discover credit card charges made aboard the ship the family was supposed to take for an adventure in Antarctica.  Bee manages to convince her father to go in pursuit of Bernadette, even though he’s involved with another woman at work.  Will Bee find her mom?  Will Bee’s mom agree to come home?  Although the ending of the book is improbable, the plot is so unique and the characters so well drawn I was able to look past this one small flaw in an otherwise great novel.


The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

joy luckThis expertly crafted novel, full of rich details about Chinese culture, focuses on four women, best friends, living in San Francisco who form a club to play mahjong. The women are Chinese immigrants; their daughters are American. The book begins with the death of one member, Suyuan Woo, who dies without being reunited with the twin girls she was forced to abandon in China after the second world war. The other women, the “aunties,” ask Suyuan’s American daughter to take her place in the club. At the first meeting, they tell June her long-lost sisters are alive. They’re going to give her money to go to China and fulfill her mother’s greatest wish. They want her to tell her sisters about the mother they never knew. But June feels she never knew her mother, either. All the aunties have wisdom to pass on to their independent American daughters, but the cultural divide is wide. June is finally able to finally make peace with her mother when she meets her half-sisters and fully embraces her Chinese heritage.

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

9781565125605This deeply emotional story unfolds as a series of memories by an old man in a nursing home. They begin with Jacob, a veterinary student who learns his parents have been killed. Devastated, he leaves school and jumps a circus train where, given his background, he is hired to care for the animals. The equestrian director, August, is a charming, generous man, but also brutal to people and the animals, especially the elephant Rosie. Jacob falls in love with August’s wife Marlena who leaves the circus to get away from her husband. Jacob is told he must get August and Marlena back together or members of the circus team will be dropped. Marlena returns. Jacob tries to kill August, but can’t go through with it even when members of the team are fired. Several of these workers return and release the animals, causing a stampede during the performance. In the ensuing panic, Rosie the elephant takes a stake and drives it into August’s head.  This is a magnificent book, but be warned there are graphic scenes of animal cruelty.

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

the-color-purpleCelie, 14, lives in rural Georgia in the 1930s. She is abused and raped by her Pa who takes her two children away after they are born. Pa marries Celie off to Mister, an equally abusive man looking for a laborer. Celie’s sister Nettie comes to live with them, but runs off when Mister makes advances. Celie’s life changes when Mister brings his ill mistress, Shug, home. Celie falls in love with Shug. Together, they find letters from Nettie which Mister hid for years. Celie learns Nettie is living with a family doing missionary work in Africa, a family who adopted Celie’s two children. The letters give her the strength to leave Mister. When Pa dies, Celie returns home. She remains friends with Shug, although Shug proved an unfaithful lover. She makes friends with a reformed Mister. After years abroad, Nettie returns with Celie’s kids. They share a joyful reunion and begin what we hope are better years at the end of their lives.  This book evokes powerful emotions and rightly won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award.

Push – Sapphire

9780679766759This is an excellent book hard to read because it’s impossibly sad, and the protagonist, Precious, begins as functionally illiterate. Precious is a black 16-year-old girl living with an abusive mother. She’s pregnant with her second child as a result of being raped by her father. Her mother wants her to drop out of school to get maximum welfare, but Precious opts to attend school.  There she meets a teacher, Blue Rain, who starts her and other girls from troubled backgrounds with basics, and ignites in them a passion for learning. Precious is making progress when she leaves to have her baby. In the hospital she admits her first child is living with her grandmother which results in welfare reduction for her mother. Enraged, her mother throws her out. Ms. Rain gets Precious into a halfway house with childcare which enables her to continue school. The more she learns, the more the grammar and spelling in the book improve. Unfortunately, Precious’s father dies of AIDS, and she tests HIV positive, too.  The book was made into a 2009 movie.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

9780241950807Absolutely stunning book which focuses on three women in 1962 as the Deep South is convulsed by the Civil Rights Movement.  Skeeter has just graduated from Ole Miss.  She has a degree and dreams of being a writer, but the conventions of the time decree it more important she land a man.  The woman she usually confides in, the black maid who raised her, has disappeared.  Aibileen, just such a black maid, is raising yet another white child.  She’s devoted to the child but broken by the death of her own son who died while his white bosses looked the other way.  Aibileen’s best friend, Minnie, also a black maid who can cook like nobody’s business, has lost her job due to her sassy tongue.  She manages to find employment with a woman new to town who is kind but has painful secrets.  The three come together for a clandestine project that will put them all, and those they love, at great risk.  Why?  Because they are suffocating under the social and cultural strictures of the time.

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

rebecca“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”  So begins this gothic tour de force about an unnamed woman who marries an older man, Maxim de Winter, after a whirlwind romance, and goes to live at his ancestral home in England. However, a dark cloud hovers over Manderley.  Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, died there and her presence haunts the estate.  Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, was devoted to Rebecca.  She intimidates the young bride who feels she can’t compete with Maxim’s beautiful, brilliant first wife. When Rebecca’s body is found in the wreckage of a sailboat, Maxim is shaken enough to reveal his first wife was actually a malevolent monster whom he wanted to divorce.  Rebecca refused, and worse, told him she was pregnant by another man.  Enraged, Maxim shot her, hid the body in a boat and tried to sink it.  The revelation restores their marriage, but Maxim now stands accused of murder.  Will he be convicted?  Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is equally good.