“84 Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff

This is such a charming and endearing book that I was quite sad that it had to end. I am so glad that this is a book club pick because I had never heard of it before and would have been missing out.

Helen Hanff is a writer in NYC in 1949 who begins a correspondence with a used book dealer in London seeking a list of books. A back and forth commences. As their correspondence continues through the years, the two begin to develop a friendship based on their love of books. They never meet and are separated by a whole ocean and yet, they are so familiar with each other.

I laughed at some parts and cried at others as the letters make those who are reading them feel that they are part of the company. I loved watching how Helens relationship with Frank grows beyond a book exchange and they begin to share their lives and it even extends to other employees in the book store.

I particularly loved the parts when Helen was outraged at something or when the book store was too slow in getting a book she longed for and she would blast them with a snarky letter, that was all in good fun.

“SLOTH. i could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read. i oughta run straight down to brentano’s which i would if anything i wanted was in print…

what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?”

Helen Hanff, February 9, 1952

Every letter is unique. Some of Helen’s letters are well thought out and grammatically correct while others, such as the one above, lack capitalization and correct punctuation. Given that she is a writer, I would assume it goes to show how much she was in a rush to send off the letter at the time.

I liked how the letters revealed what is going on in the world at that time. The correspondence starts at the end of World War II, when Britain still has food rations and things are still hard to come by. There is another letter that signals the death of the King and then the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Then another shows how tourism begins to pick up in Britain by how busy the bookstore is.

I also liked knowing what books she was requesting and what books were popular at the book store. We have a few used book stores here in upstate NY and I now want to take a stroll through one and see what they have in stock. Better yet, maybe I should write them a letter and tell them to mail me a copy.

This book will make you long for the days of letter writing, something I actually enjoyed when I was younger. There is something to be said about sending a letter to someone through the postal service and waiting to hear back. For a while, I had a pen pal who lived in Oregon, on the opposite site of the United States, and I loved hearing from her. I also wrote back and forth to my uncle in Pennsylvania too. Why don’t we write letters anymore? We have email but but it’s not the same. More often than not, we just shoot off a reply to the person that contacted us.

If you want a quick nostalgic read that you can curl up with in an afternoon, then “84 Charing Cross Road” is the perfect book.

Have you read this book? What other charming books would you recommend? Let’s discuss!

‘Relish: My Life in the Kitchen’ by Lucy Knisley

Every year for November, the Society for Avid Readers Across the Hudson Book Club chooses a book that revolves around food. Sometimes they are really good and sometimes they are really bad. It’s always a mixed bag.

My initial thoughts when they selected “Relish” was that this book is going to be fun. That is purely going by the cover. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but I just couldn’t help it. Look at it.

Then I realized that it was a graphic novel and some of that excitement faded. I am not one to read graphic novels. I don’t know why but for some reason they just don’t appeal to me. Maybe the layout is too distracting for me, I don’t know. But I bit the bullet and guess what, I liked it.

I blew through it in an hour and I must say that it was fun. In the past we have read food books which were more about the industry or what you should or shouldn’t do when it comes to food or the types of food to eat. However this was just a personal experience with food, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes just outright hilarious.

Knisley talks about her childhood in the kitchen with a mom who was a chef and how food played a huge role at each stage of her life. She talks about how the dinner menu was a bit different than what normal kids would eat – all high end food that you would normally be served at a restaurant. I mean if it was me, I might have starved, since I am picky eater, or, maybe, I would have learned to appreciate food at an early age like she did.

My favorite parts were when she was finally introduced to the world of processed food at a friend’s house and when she ate Mexican food in Mexico. I will say, there is something about eating food from another culture that is unforgettable. I still think about the food I ate in Spain.

If Knisley doesn’t make you hungry enough, at the end of each chapter she includes a recipe, which is a complete bonus. Not going to lie, some of the recipes I might even try, though some others are way too involved for me and I fear that I would just make a mess of things.

The fact that this was a graphic novel only served as a benefit and I actually enjoyed the imagery that accompanied the narrative. Perhaps I should give graphic novels more of a try.

I didn’t make it to book club for the discussion but I think I would have enjoyed it. I’m really interested to hear what everyone else thought. The organizer gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. I didn’t think it was that amazing but it was definitely 4 stars. But then again, to me five stars equals absolutely amazing, can’t stop thinking about it, everyone needs to read it.

Let’s just say, if you are looking for a light, fun read, this is definitely a good one. But make sure you have a snack nearby because your tummy might get hungry before you’re through.

Have you read “Relish”? What did you think? What other foodie books would you recommend? Let’s discuss!

‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion in October due to work but I felt like I should still write a review about this book, even if it is a few weeks late. Even more so because I am still thinking about it.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book. I was excited when it had first come out and then I saw that it was nonfiction. For some reason, I immediately thought it was going to be a snoozer. It didn’t help that I saw mixed reviews about it, some of which said that it was hard to get through.

Well yet again, book club wins. I swear I am more and more appreciative that I am in book club because I feel like every month I am saying that if it wasn’t because of book club I wouldn’t have read the book. I absolutely loved “The Library Book” and with Orlean’s descriptive writing style, I kept turning the pages for more.

“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality, in the library we can live forever.”

-The Library Book

Through little snippets like the one above, Orlean shows her appreciation for libraries and what they stand for. While “The Library Book” focuses on the San Franscisco Library fire of 1986, Orlean weaves her personal experience with libraries into the narrative. She delves into its operations, not just at the checkout counter, but behind the scenes, from the process of bringing in new books to keeping track of the inventory to the process that goes into shipping books between branches as well as the myriad of other services a library has to offer.

More importantly, Orlean highlights how critical libraries are to the community and why the fire of 1986 was so devastating to the staff, the community and even the city. She even goes into the financial aspect of a library. While the local city does contribute to the funding of a library, it is a constant negotiation to get more funding to support the services they offer.

In each chapter, Orlean provides new information about the fire and its aftermath, the hunt for the guilty party and then when you begin to tire of the history lesson, she segways into either a story about going to a library when she was growing up or a generalization about the affect libraries have on the areas they reside. It leaves you with a newfound respect for the institution.

I will say after reading this book I definitely wanted to go out and support my local library.

Have you read “The Library Book”? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

Book Club Discussion: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson

For years, I have been wanting to read this book but never got a chance to. I have, however, seen the movie, titled “The Haunting”, starring Catherine Zeta Jones, Liam Neesen and Lili Taylor as Eleanor. I normally do try to read the book before the movie but in this instance I didn’t even know it was a book until a few years ago.

Having seen the movie, I was excited to read it for book club, because usually it’s always better than the book. However, I must say, in this instance, I felt like I was missing a whole part of the plot. Where the book ends, the movie had added a whole other subplot, which seemed to tie up some of the loose questions that were left unanswered

It was one of the biggest criticisms from the other members in book club. They felt like Shirley Jackson would bring up a point in the story and when you were excited to see it where it would lead, she just kind of dropped it. Or she would bring in a random scene only to move on to the next without any reason.

There were mixed reactions about the book overall. Some were let down because they were expecting a good scare, while others argued that yes, it’s tame for modern standards, but for the time (1950s) this book was scary. Others, who don’t necessarily read horror , liked this book because of the psychological elements to it.

In short, a doctor, looking to analyze how paranormal activity can affect the psyche, invites two women to stay with him at, you guessed it, a haunted house. The soon to be heir of the house is also invited, basically to watch over things. And of course things begin to happen.

The two women – Theo and Eleanor – are invited because of their sensitive nature to unknown occurrences. The story focuses on Eleanor, a mousy quiet woman who lives with her sister and brother-in-law, who yearns for an adventure and accepts the invitation to stay at Hill House. Upon arriving at the house, she immediately becomes affected by the things around her and how the others treat her.

I will agree with the others that this book is definitely a psychological thriller and while it wasn’t scary, it did have enough suspense to keep me turning the pages. However, one of the biggest things that Shirley Jackson doesn’t quite answer is why Eleanor is more affected than the others. She leaves it open for interpretation, which actually made for a good discussion in book club. Was she simply just crazy? Or did the house have the same kind of influence on her that it did on the previous occupants? For a book that many were on the fence about, we discussed it for nearly 2 hours.

Despite my initial disappointment that it wasn’t like the movie or vice versa, once I looked at the book for what it was, I must say that it stands on its own and is definitely a good read.

Have you read “The Haunting of Hill House?” What did you think? What are some other good spooky reads you would recommend? Let’s discuss?

‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman

It took me a while to get through this book but I’m finding that some books just need to be absorbed slowly, like a hot beverage.

This book was about a lot of things – a bank robbery, a hostage situation, a bridge – but mostly, it was about people. People who are just trying to live each day the best they can, given the hand that life dealt them.

We meet several individuals at an apartment viewing and at first glance, they are all there for one purpose – to buy an apartment. Yet, as the story unfolds, we learn that the why is the more important part, because each one has their own story. Most of all, each one is dealing with their own anxiety about those situations, whether it’s being along after years of being with a significant other, making sure everything is ready for a child, paying the bills, or even feeling that we matter.

Each person has this internal struggle even as they go through a hostage situation, which is not your standard hostage situation. But through it, they realize that none of these things matter because as long as they simply try, they are not alone. They learn that somewhere out there, someone else is going through the same thing or something even worse – enough to make them think they have no way out and they end up jumping off a bridge – not realizing that their actions will inadvertently affect others. There are ways to overcome any situation and we can help others by understanding.

Yet, while this book was a hodge podge of different characters and different plots, Backman is brilliant in how he weaves all of them together. It reminded me of a line that I have used a hundred times when I run into someone or find out they know someone that I have known for years – “What a small world.” The constant twist and turns in this book were delightful and in true Backman form, the ending was bittersweet. I found myself with tears in my eyes and hugging this book, wishing I could give those characters a hug in turn.

Have you read “Anxious People” yet? If so, what did you think? Let’s discuss!

Book Club Discussion: ‘East of the Mountains’ by David Guterson

If you were faced with a terminal illness, what would you do? Would you go on living the life you have left, taking advantage of every minute, or would you want to end it, on your own terms?

For Ben Givens, the answer seems obvious. As a retired heart surgeon, he knows full well what his diagnosis of terminal colon cancer will entail. He wants to avoid it at all costs. So he plans one last hike with his two hunting dogs in the mountains. What he doesn’t expect is for anything to get in the way of his well thought-out plan.

When I started reading this book, I had no clue how it was going to turn out. We know right from the start what Ben’s plan is and there are only two ways it could end – he live or he dies. So now, as a reader, we have to go on this journey with Ben whether we like it or not.

As one book club member pointed out. “People make plans and God laughs.” Ben thinks he has it all figured out. He has planned an elaborate way to die and nothing is going to get in his way. That is until he goes on this journey and through the people he meets and the things that occur, he realizes that dying is easy, living is a struggle. We are faced with death around every corner of our lives. When we drive a car, we can get into an accident. When we are out hiking, we can’t get injured or run into dangerous animals. Those we love can die for no rhyme or reason. So the only thing we can do is accept that we are going to die at some point and continue to live our life until that time comes.

Many in book club, while they liked the book, thought the characters were thin and the dialogue was a little stilted. The biggest criticism was the over description of the places Ben was going that reminded them more of a travelogue than a fiction book. Others called it more episodic. There were great moments in the book but they were left hanging without any ties to each other.

I argue that the author didn’t care about the other characters or necessarily how they interacted. This whole book was Ben’s personal journey. He wanted to die and through these interactions, it made him question whether he was making the right decision. Ultimately I thought it was well done.

This is the second book I have read of Guterson and it is completely different from his first book, “Snow Falling on Cedars” since that book is a crime plot that highlights on the discrimination against Japanese in the United States after World War II and I absolutely loved it. Even though “East of the Mountains” isn’t my favorite, it has stayed with me.

Have you read “East of the Mountains”? What other books provide a reflection on life and death? Let’s discuss?

‘An American Marriage’ by Tayari Jones

I have seen this book get rave reviews when it came out but honestly, at the time, it wasn’t high on my TBR list. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have read it at all had I not received it as a gift. And yet again, I would have missed out on a great book.

Given the current racial tensions in the United States following the death of George Floyd, this was a good book to read to give some perspective on African American issues. Granted it is fiction, but once again, the fiction narrative provides a realistic picture of what minorities face by the police and justice system. But this book goes into so much more.

Roy and Celeste are happily married, making plans to have children, open a business and Roy to move up in his job, when suddenly their world is torn apart. A woman falsely identifies Roy as being at the scene of a crime and despite Celeste providing testimony to the contrary, Roy is convicted. And it all comes down to the fact that Roy is African American. Jones highlights everything that is wrong with the justice system and the racism embedded in it. But the arrest is just one part of the story.

What Tayari also shines a light on is the impact these decisions have on these families and how even love can only go so far. What happens to each of these characters is understandable and yet infuriating. I was angry with Celeste at what she does but at the same time I couldn’t help wondering if I wouldn’t have done the same thing. As she says, she is innocent. She didn’t ask for any of this to happen, but at the same time, neither did Roy. In some ways I thought Roy was being selfish, but other times I could totally understand how he felt. In an essay about the book, Jones says she purposely makes the situation where none of the characters are right or wrong. And by doing so, the reader is presented with a full picture on how this can impact everyone and you are left with a bundle of mixed emotions with no one to direct them at.

While the ending is bittersweet, I honestly don’t think it would have worked any other way. No one would have been happy and while it is hard to give up something such as love, sometimes letting go is the best decision for everyone involved.

It’s been a few weeks since I read this but I still think about it. It has made a few lists of fiction book recommendations that deal with African American issues or experiences. I would highly recommend it.

Have you read “An American Marriage”? What did you think? What other books that deal with minority issues would you recommend? Let’s discuss!

Book club discussion: “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee

I had never read anything by J.M. Coetzee before. I am not going to lie, I had never even heard the name Coetzee until book club members suggested this book to read. I knew it was going to be a good one by how many members recommended it. What I didn’t expect was how damn dark and depressing it would be. This book is not easy to read, and can definitely be a trigger.

Tonight when we met to discuss the book, the members who suggested reading the book apologized because they had forgotten how dark it was. Yet, despite that, everyone thought the book was well done.

According to the summary:

At fifty-two, Professor David Lurie is divorced, filled with desire, but lacking in passion. When an affair with a student leaves him jobless, shunned by friends, and ridiculed by his ex-wife, he retreats to his daughter Lucy’s smallholding. David’s visit becomes an extended stay as he attempts to find meaning in his one remaining relationship. Instead, an incident of unimaginable terror and violence forces father and daughter to confront their strained relationship and the equality complicated racial complexities of the new South Africa. 

If there is one thing to note about this book, is that despite it being written in 1999, many of the occurrences in this book were very much relevant today, especially the misogynistic qualities in David. He pretty much forces himself on a student because he thinks he has a right to.

“Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.” 

I kid you not, that was his reasoning. All I could think when I read that was, “Seriously?! WTF?! Ugh!” I was so disgusted. Many of the members agreed, calling him a “slimeball” and more. One member, who was reading this for the second time, said that she didn’t recall how disgusting he was but that given everything going on with the current #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, her views had shifted since first reading the book. It made his character all the more prevalent.

I thought it was pretty ironic that David pretty much forces the affair with the student at the beginning of the book and doesn’t think anything of it, but then later when his own daughter gets attacked, he is absolutely horrified. It is all the matter of perspective, I guess. David’s view shifts from the one doing it to the one observing it being done on someone he loves. Though I will say that his daughter’s attack is much worse. Just fair warning, if you plan to read the book.

What I and many members didn’t understand is why the women in this book were all passive. The student simply allows David to do what he wants to her without objecting and even encourages it at one point. It seems that she only reports him because she is forced to by her boyfriend and father. Then David’s daughter refuses to report the attack or leave the house, despite knowing that it could happen again. The females in the group said they would have left the first chance they got. Though I understand that Lucy didn’t want the men who did what they did to win, where is the line drawn in the sand?

The racial undertones of this books were subtle but startling. When Lucy finds herself in a precarious position later in the book, she agrees to marry her neighbor who is African. She knows that as a white, single, lesbian she is in danger of being attacked again, if not worse, all because she owns property that some would argue is not rightfully hers. By marrying her neighbor Petrus, who has two other wives, she has a form of protection. He can have her land as long she can continue to live where she lives. Some members thought this was her way trying to apologize for what white people had done, a form of reparations.

Many of us thought that the neighbor was the reason for the attack, not to be malicious but to get her to leave so he can own the land. At the beginning Petrus owns just the barn and a little plot that it sits on at the far end of Lucy’s property. But throughout the book, he begins to expand those boundaries. It’s almost as if he knows that there is nothing Lucy can do about it and so he patiently waits her out.

Disgrace, the title of this book, is fitting because it is portrayed throughout the book, from David’s disgrace from the university to his own daughter’s disgrace after the attack. Coetzee has a way of describing the human condition at its worst. You can understand each of the characters but at the same time all you want is to do away with them.

Our group spent nearly two hours discussing this book. There are so many layers that it is hard to write about them in one post and to be honest, I am still trying to wrap my head around everything. It’s only 200 pages but there is so much in it. It’s one of those books that you have to read multiple times to fully grasp what the author is trying to convey. But there is one line at the start of the book that really got my attention and I will end this post with it.

“The one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn, learn nothing.”



‘Oryx and Crake’ by Margaret Atwood

I’m beginning to think that Margaret Atwood has the gift of foresight. How else can you explain her knack for writing a dystopian novel that in reality, doesn’t seem quite unrealistic? First, it was “The Handmaid’s Tale” that was written in the 1980s and is as relevant today as before. Now, I finish “Oryx and Crake” and I can’t helping feeling the same thing.

In the open pages of Oryx and Crake the reader is introduced to Snowman, who is all alone, half dressed in a tattered sheet with bug bites and scabs. He is alone except for the children, who at first glance appear to be native children that can’t understand Snowman. You can’t help wonder if he is a foreigner or are they? However the answer is neither. For Snowman is the only human left on earth after a viral plague wipes out mankind. The children are not entirely human or human in the everyday sense of the word. Doesn’t sound so far off does it?

What is even more scary is how this plague comes to be. In true fashion, Atwood is no secret to reveal the answer too quickly. Through flashbacks, the reader goes back to pre-plague, to uncover the story that Snowman – or Jimmy as he referred to then – has to tell. Back to the days when you either lived in the Pleeblands (the world as we know it) or the compounds where things are orderly and safe. The compounds consist of scientists or workers for a scientific agency, which is focused on making everything in the world better, safer, healthier, last longer – through scientific modification.

What is scary is how close to reality this book comes. It’s almost as if Atwood took what she saw going on in the scientific community and then took it a few steps further by thinking of the worst possible scenario. I mean this book was written in the early 2000s and yet, they have things that are being introduced to society now. Plant-based meat was not a thing until a few years ago, but it is in this book. Then the virus? We know that there is a plague, as is given in the summary on the back cover, but how or why, is painfully revealed slowly. While the virus is different, what happens is eerily all too much reality at the moment. It almost makes you wonder whether some of the conspiracy theorists about COVID-19 are on to something.

I loved the false sense of security that Atwood sets up with all the characters and the relationships between them. For example Jimmy and Crake are best friends, and you know that since Jimmy is now alone that something happened to Crake, but what? Did Jimmy watch his friend die a brutal death or did they have a falling out before then?

Then there is the whole love story between Jimmy and Oryx, who meet in the most unexpected circumstances. Given their history, you wonder if they are going to actually be together. Then when just as your cheering for Jimmy to finally have found his person, the rug is pulled again.

For the duration of the reader is sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for the shoe to fall, waiting for when the big reveal will happen until it does in the most unexpected way. Then you just want to flip back to the beginning because you feel like you missed something. There had to be an Easter egg somewhere.

This is definitely a great read, but if the current happenings in the world are freaking you out, it may be better to wait a bit. I am not one to read series or trilogies but I must say that I am definitely intrigued about what happens in this dystopian world.

Have you read “Oryx and Crake”? What other dystopian novels have you read recently? Let’s discuss!

‘Two for the Dough’ by Janet Evanovich

I read “One for the Money” about two years ago after a friend recommended it. I loved it and wanted to continue to read the Plum series and finally got around to the sequel, “Two for the Dough.” Though I will say that I wasn’t as engaged with the sequel as I was with the first one. Maybe it is just the story line, but it wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I began to enjoy it.

This time bounty hunter Stephanie Plum has been tasked with picking up Kenny Mancusco, who has jumped bail. Stephanie thinks it is going to be an easy pickup, except for the fact that noone has seen Kenny, including his cousin, Joe Morelli, who also happens to be a cop that is constantly getting in Stephanie’s way. Then Kenny’s best friend ends up shot and a cache of guns and caskets go missing, but as Stephanie continues to search for the elusive Kenny, dead body parts begin showing up on her doorstep and Stephanie finds herself once again in danger. She knows she must find Kenny to end it.

I think why I dragged at the start of this book was that there was no brief recap. Traditionally in sequels or series, the author will throw in a paragraph or two to explain key elements to refresh the reader on who some of the characters were. Having read the first book so awhile back, I was trying to remember exactly what happened and who was who. I totally forgot that Joe Morelli was the one that Stephanie was trying to nab in the first book, though it was a misunderstanding. While Evanovich does say that they do have a history, it wasn’t clear what that history was. If someone were reading this book first, they would just assume that Stephanie and Morelli have been dating on and off. Considering that this book started right in the middle of a stakeout, I was feeling adrift and it took some time to get my bearings.

The saving grace in this book is Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur. I swear she is the best character. That woman is an absolute hoot. Throughout the book, she tags along with Stephanie to funeral parlors where the most ridiculous things happen, from caskets accidentally opening to things breaking and so on. Whenever Grandma Mazur is around, something is bound to happen. And the words that come out of her mouth are classic.

I swear, if Stephanie’s mother is not my own mother, I will eat my hat. I couldn’t help but cringe with Stephanie when she had to move briefly back home to keep a watch on Grandma. I swear as soon as her mother started in, I thought my mother had entered the book. The dialogue was straight from my own family, who happen to live in New Jersey. I could definitely relate, which is why I keep coming back for more. This book is all about the characters and Evanovich does them so well.

Overall, while the book had its faults, it still a fun read for when you want something light. Evanovich’s writing is simple and again, the characters will definitely keep you turning the pages.

Have you read “Two for the Dough?” What did you think? Let’s discuss!