29. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
This story takes place in rural coastal Mississippi, covering the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the day of the hurricane and the day after. The story is told from the perspective of 14 year old Esch, who at the beginning of the novel finds herself pregnant and desperately trying to capture the attention of the baby’s father who cares nothing about her except for sex. Esch is the sole daughter in a family of four children being raised by a single father. Their mother died giving birth to Junior the youngest son. She also has two older brothers Randall and Skeetah.
This book is essentially the calm before the storm. You see this family going about its lives but with the sense that something larger is brewing but without really understanding what it is. Unfortunately most of the characters seemed only caricatures. I never really got a good sense of who Randall, Junior, or the father were. They seemed to be side notes each with their own quirk. Even Esch, who is the narrator of the story seems to be not very well drawn. Mostly what you know about her is that she is pregnant and has been sleeping around because it seemed easier than not doing it when boys started going after her.
Skeetah is really the heart of the story, though the relationship he has with his pit bull China and her puppies that serves as the real meat of the story can be hard to take. It is very obvious that he loves this dog more than anything else in the world and would sacrifice himself for her and yet this is juxtaposed with his use of her to make money and status through breeding her and entering her into dog fights. It fits with who the character is even though it seems counterintuitive to think that someone who puts his dog in such horrible situations could love her so much.
The part about Katrina was actually the weakest part of the story, and I think that it actually would have been better for the author to end it just as the hurricane was arriving. The descriptions of what happen during the hurricane to this family made little sense to me, and the aftermath just seemed rather anti-climactic to what you knew was building the entire time.
I give it a 6 out of 10.
28. The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan
McMillan is a journalist who took a year of her life to work at jobs where she got to experience food in it’s process from the farm to the table. She began by picking various crops, moved on to working in Wal-Mart first in the shelved food area and then in a different Wal-Mart in the produce section, and finally as an expediter in the kitchen at Applebees’s (a job that entails prepping everything that goes on a plate other than the cooked food and making sure it’s ready to be sent out to the table). She also kept track of her own eating habits during her time at each of the jobs and how much of salary in each instance would have been devoted to food.
I enjoyed the book, though other than the mechanics involved in some of the jobs I didn’t learn much of anything new. I liked her writing style though, and felt like she was telling the story of her life and her experiences rather than grinding an ax which so often I feel like similar books are doing. She didn’t seem to be trying to present things as being better or worse at any of the jobs she was doing than they actually were. She pointed out the pluses and minuses she encountered in all of her positions.
It was an entertaining but also informative read and I would recommend it. I give it a 7 out of 10.
27. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
I was really excited to read this book based on the description and reviews I had seen of it prior to it’s release. Sadly, I was hugely disappointed. The story takes place over a span of 25 years starting with the wedding of two of the characters. While driving home from the wedding in the middle of the night heavily under the influence of drugs and alcohol a car full of wedding guests hit and kill a young girl. You then follow these characters through the next 25 years focusing most heavily on the bride, and her sister and brother who were both riding in the car that night. Essentially that night is supposed to have shaped what happens to all of them the rest of their lives, and is occasionally tossed in as a reference to remind you that it happened and the characters are supposedly haunted by it. However, I didn’t buy it. For the most part that entire part of the story could have been eliminated and I don’t think it would change anything except for the author bringing it up every every so often seemingly to remind us that it happened. It was more like she was telling us that it affected the characters rather than it actually seeming like it had. Based on the little you get to know about the characters prior to the accident I could totally see the trajectory of their lives winding up exactly as they did even without the accident. This book definitely does not deserve all the hype it has been getting in my opinion. I give it a 5 out of 10.
26. For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire, and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink by Sarah Rose
This book is essentially the tale of Robert Fortune, who was sent by the British East India company to infiltrate China to find out the techniques of growing green and black tea and to bring back plants and seeds that they could then grow elsewhere themselves. I found his story to be fairly interesting, but it was bookended by less interesting information about the tea trade and the British East India Company. I suppose I understand the author’s intent in setting the stage for why what Fortune was doing was such a big deal, but her need to follow the British East India Company through it’s demise just felt tacked on and unnecessary. I give the book a 5 out of 10.
25. Mr. Broadway: The Inside Story of the Shuberts, the Shows, and the Stars by Gerald Schoenfeld
Mr. Broadway is a posthumously published memoir by Gerald Schoenfeld, who was the longtime Chairman of the Shubert Organization. This book is definitely not for anyone who not into Broadway theater. Schoenfeld details his work with the Shubert Organization starting with finding himself accidentally employed as their lawyer despite his lack of knowledge of the theater at the time. He wound up remaining with the organization the rest of his life and becoming not just one of their lawyers but the head of the organization working on the business end of keeping all their theaters running. He was also heavily influential in the cleanup of the Times Square Area of New York.
I definitely learned some things I did not know about the business side of Broadway, which I didn’t know much about prior to reading this book. I found the stories about running the organization more interesting than the celebrity name dropping stories from the shows at the various Shubert theaters. It also definitely felt like a memoir in that there were many disagreements laid out in this book where of course Schoenfeld always felt his was in the right. You never get to hear the other person’s point of view so you’re just supposed to take his word for it I guess. I also felt like the book needed a little bit more editing. The oddest thing to me was the placement of the chapter about his work getting Times Square cleaned up. It’s something that is alluded to more than once in the beginning of the book, but then doesn’t appear until almost the very end. Although the book isn’t strictly chronological as the beginning chapters tend to sort of move chronologically through his early work with the Shuberts and then move back and then forward again through time when talking about specific celebrities and plays. I felt like he passed two points in time chronologically when he should have included that story and finally decided I either somehow missed it while reading or he for some reason wasn’t going to actually tell it.
If you’re a big Broadway fan it’s probably worth a read, but otherwise I would probably skip it.
24. The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker
I really wanted to like this book more than I did, but it just never quite came together for me. The story takes place in a small Massachusetts town on the cape. The Gilly family are salt farmers and it has long been believed that their salt holds some sort of magical powers. Each December during a town festival as children the two sisters, Jo and Claire throw salt into the fire and the color of the resulting smoke portends what the town’s fate will be during the upcoming year. However, as adults they have become estranged. Claire has married Whit Turner, heir of the town’s wealthiest family who has had a longstanding feud with the Gilly family. She washes her hand of her past and tries to eliminate Gilly salt from the town while Jo tries to hold on to the rapidly declining salt farm. Many years on a Dee, a teenage girl and her father move to town and open a diner. Dee rapidly becomes enthralled with the Gilly sisters and Whit Turner and winds up entangling herself in their lives.
I couldn’t figure out what this book wanted to be. The salt seemed to maybe have an element of magic to it, but it was never really explained and also seemed like it could all just be folklore instead of fact. The relationships between the characters also never made sense to me. They all seemed really hard and disconnected from each other, which made it difficult for me to care about them or what was happening between them. There also seemed to be two big secrets haunting the characters in the book. One was essentially pointed out really early in the book, but then not fully explained until towards the end which made no sense to me. The other secret I didn’t realize was a secret I was supposed to think about until it was revealed and then I didn’t much care about it.
Essentially, I liked the idea of this book and it’s setting. I really felt a sense of place in the book, but unfortunately the characters were not nearly as well drawn. I feel like the book had good bones, but the execution just wasn’t quite there. I give it a 5 out of 10.
23. An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer
This is the second book I’ve read year where the protagonist is a recent widower, the first being The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler. The two books address it in very different ways though. An Available Man, as the title might suggest is about a man in his 60s attempting to reenter the dating world after the death of his wife. I found it to be an ok read, but nothing I was super invested in. I think perhaps it might appeal more to people in the older age demographic portrayed in the book. I give it a 6 out of 10.
22. The Cranes Dance by Meg Howery
The Cranes Dance is the story of Kate Crane and her younger sister Gwen. Both are extremely gifted at dance and left home as teenagers to attend school and dance with a ballet company in New York City. Kate as the older sister always sought to protect her younger sister until it became obvious that Gwen had developed some serious mental problems. The book begins with Kate having called her parents to come get her sister and follows her as she begins the biggest year of her career while dealing with feelings of guilt about not being able to deal with her sister’s problems. It is very obvious that the author is/was a dancer and she seeks to convey the world of a ballet company in deep detail. Sometimes it is great at setting the scene and really taking you into the world, but at other times I found it to be too much detail for someone who does not live and breathe ballet. My other quibble with the story is that the fact that is told completely from Kate’s perspective. Even with flashbacks of the relationship between Gwen and her and her stated feelings about the situation I never quite felt like Gwen was more than a 2 dimensional character most likely because I had in depth access to Kate’s thoughts and feelings while only getting glimpses of Gwen’s actions with little reasoning behind them. Overall though I really enjoyed the book and couldn’t wait to pick it back up again when I wasn’t reading it. I found Kate to be a really well drawn character who had her share of faults but not so many that she was unlikeable, but who was also relatable even as someone living in a very specialized world most of us will never enter. I give it an 8 out of 10.
21.The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith by Matthew Bowman
This book is essentially what the title says it is, a history of the Mormon people from Joseph Smith’s founding of the religion to the way they live and worship in today’s society. For anyone interested in learning more about the Mormon faith in a seemingly unbiased way this is a really good book. I think it would make an excellent companion piece to Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, which although an excellent book, takes a more extremist look at Mormonism. I give it a 7 out of 10.
20. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I reread The Hunger Games recently in preparation for my book club going to see the movie and then having a discussion based around the two. I’m not going to do an in depth review since I previously reviewed the trilogy, but I will say that even having read the book before and knowing what was going to happen I was still on the edge of my seat for the whole thing. It’s a testament how well written the first book in the trilogy is for me to not want to put it down even though I had read it previously.