THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA by J. Ryan Stradal

I approached The Lager Queen Of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal with some trepidation. EDIWTB readers know that Kitchens Of The Great Midwest is one of my all-time favorite books, and the only book I’ve reviewed twice on this blog (here and here). How could any book, let alone Stradal’s second novel, possibly live up to the high expectations set by Kitchens? My Readerly Report co-host Nicole answered that question simply and and concisely for me on a recent episode: It couldn’t.

I decided Nicole was right, and chose to read Lager as if I’d never read Kitchens, letting it live on its own outside the shadow of its older sibling. And that’s what I am going to do with this review.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota centers on two sisters, Edith and Helen, who grow up in Minnesota in the 1960s. Edith marries early, while Helen, enthralled by beer at an early age, marries the heir to a beer company after college and vows, together with him, to turn the brewery into a famous name outside the state. Helen sells her parents’ farm when they pass away, sharing none of the inheritance with her sister. Edith lives her life modestly, and while she is content, works hard throughout her life and finds herself in her 70s, alone, supporting a granddaughter and never really catching a break. Meanwhile, Edith’s granddaughter Diana also develops the family passion for beer, and, as a teenager, launches her own craft beer label.

The Lager Queen Of Minnesota traces the ups and downs of these three women’s lives – the losses, the disappointments and the aspirations. I love that Stradal focuses on older women – a demographic so often missing from modern fiction – as well as people who work at Arby’s and can’t afford to replace cars when they break down. He infuses them with humanity and sympathy, but he has deep respect for them as well. Edith is generous but unassertive, her sister Helen is rigid and ambitious and Diana is a true blend of the two. Like another book I’ve mentioned in this review (damn it!), this one is filled with food (or drink), family and loss – three themes that Stradal handles beautifully.

I like beer a lot, though I like the kind of beer Stradal mocks throughout the book – mass-market stuff that goes down like water. I am not a craft beer person at all, and I was worried I’d be overwhelmed by talk about hops and grains and the subtleties of brewing ale. Happily, while there is a lot of beer talk, there is a lot more to Lager. And the sections about brewing are almost always about something else too, so it’s not like you’re reading a craft beer primer.

I highly recommend The Lager Queen of Minnesota. If you enjoy quieter stories about regular people with rich interior lives, sprinkled with humor, sadness and wry observations about life, then J. Ryan Stradal is your guy. I will read anything he writes.

BELONGING by Nora Krug

Belonging: A German Reckons With History And Home by Nora Krug falls into a new book category for me: graphic memoir. The author is a woman in her thirties who was born in Germany long after World War II, and Belonging is her quest to understand the role her family played in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Nora Krug grew up in the south of Germany in a town that housed an American air base after WWII. Throughout her childhood, the Holocaust was not discussed or addressed by her family or friends. She recalls a strong feeling of shame about being German, despite having only a vague understanding of what had happened in her own country. She moved to America as a young adult, but remained both homesick for and intensely curious about her home country and her own family tree. She decided to return to Germany to trace her predecessors on both her mother’s and her father’s sides to learn what responsibility they had in the killing of Jews.

There are two elements to Belonging: the research and storytelling, and then the unbelievable visuals that go with them. Krug spent years tracking down her cousins and aunts – estranged on both sides of her family tree – to learn more about her grandfathers and a great-uncle who died in Italy fighting for Germany. Krug, now married to a Jewish man, seeks any evidence she can find that these men were not Nazi supporters, and evem that they had worked to help Jews survive during the Holocaust. She places this quest in the larger context of exploring how Germany as a country dealt with its own responsibility for what happened, and how that sense of responsibility has changed from generation to generation.

Belonging is also a love letter to Germany, one that Krug had clearly suppressed for a long time. She singles out certain objects from her homeland – a special kind of bandaid, a hot water bottle, the forest – and perhaps for the first time, publicly expresses how much these mean to her. I confess that, as an American Jew, I have had little curiosity about German, nor any desire to visit. By showing me Germany through Krug’s eyes, Belonging softened my views and at least piqued my interest.

What’s most compelling about Belonging, though, is the graphic part of the graphic memoir. This is a gorgeous book. It is hand lettered in a clear, consistent type (across 288 pages), interspersed with photographs, drawings, memorabilia, letters, maps and clippings. Krug scoured flea markets and eBay for photos and letters from the time periods she wrote about, so when she didn’t have artifacts from her own family, she borrowed those of others’. What a labor of love this book must have been. I tried to appreciate every page, thinking about how she chose the content she did and how it affected the reading experience. I am not well-versed in graphic novels or memoirs, but I was extremely impressed with Belonging. It reminded me of The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston (which I also loved), but in format only, as this one is non-fiction and intensely personal.

Belonging was a bit of a departure for me, but I am really glad I picked it up.

SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE by Jean Kwok

Searching For Sylvie Lee – which has dominated summer best-of lists and is the June Today Show Read With Jenna pick – is the third novel from Jean Kwok (after Girl In Translation (reviewed here) and Mambo In Chinatown (reviewed here). It came out at the beginning of the month and I just finished it on audio.

Like Kwok’s earlier books, Searching For Sylvie Lee is about immigration, identity, family and loss. Sylvie Lee was born to Chinese parents in New York City but was sent to live with her grandmother and cousins in the Netherlands as an infant. She moved back to the States as an awkward 9 year-old, joining her parents and baby sister Amy in New York, but never felt that she fit in. She worked hard, attended Princeton and married a white guy from a rich family and got a job at an investment bank. When the novel opens, she has gone back to the Netherlands to see her dying grandmother and reconnect with her family in Amsterdam. When Sylvie disappears while in Amsterdam, her cousin Lukas calls Amy (now in her 20s) to see if she has heard from her. Amy, frantic, travels to the Netherlands to retrace her sister’s steps and try to find out what happened to her.

Kwok is expert at communicating the loneliness and isolation that comes from feeling that you don’t belong, or that you are far from people who love and understand you. She does it again here in Searching For Sylvie Lee. Sylvie never fit in in Amsterdam as a child, one of only a few Chinese kids in her school, and when she moved back in with her parents in New York, their family unit had formed without her. Meanwhile, there are secrets and resentments among her Amsterdam family that Sylvie never understood, relying only on her grandmother and cousin for emotional intimacy. The theme of disconnection and misunderstanding is threaded strongly through Searching For Sylvie Lee, even as the thriller-y mystery of Sylvie’s fate propels the story along.

I especially enjoyed Kwok’s atmospheric descriptions of Amsterdam and Venice, where Sylvie and Lukas spend a weekend. Those cities play their own role in the book, with the buildings and water in both providing backdrops to pivotal scenes and interactions. The gondolas, the bicycles, even the food come into sharp relief through Kwok’s sensuous writing. The scenery also reinforces the sense of loneliness that often pervades the book.

Searching For Sylvie Lee is a bit of a departure from Kwok’s earlier books, and while I am not naturally drawn to thrillers, there is enough else here to make for a very compelling read.

I listened to Searching For Sylvie Lee on audio. There are three narrators, one each for Amy, Sylvie and their mother. The narrators – Angela Lin, Samantha Quan and Caroline McLaughlin – did a very good job of conveying these three characters’ different viewpoints and personalities. The rapid rotation among the three voices kept the audio moving at a fast pace, but not too fast to blur the emotional impact of Kwok’s writing. On the most recent episode of The Readerly Report podcast, Kwok talked to Nicole and me about the process of choosing narrators for the audio version (she was heavily involved) and why she felt it was so important to have three different voices.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes

Tonight I finished a book that I really enjoyed, and I’m sad because I wanted it to keep going. The book is Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes.

Evvie Drake is a thirtysomething woman living in Maine. Her husband Tim was killed in a car accident, and almost two two years have passed with her living in seclusion in the large house they shared. When her best friend Andy suggests that she rent out an apartment connected to the house, and also supplies the tenant – his old friend Dean, a World-Series-winning pitcher who can’t hit his target anymore – Evvie reluctantly agrees. She can use the money, and, it turns out, the company.

Dean moves in with Evvie, and thus begins a friendship between two flawed adults that has the potential to turn into something more. Evvie and Dean’s relationship is at the heart of Evvie Drake Starts Over, and I found it totally irresistible. They are adults, and they have adult conversations and do adult things. They’ve got their issues, which they slowly reveal to each other, and they are both just completely relatable. (Well, Dean is an MLB pitcher, so he’s not that relatable, but he’s very appealing nonetheless.)

It helps that Holmes – a pop culture reporter for NPR and the host of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast – is a funny, observant writer who puts her characters into totally believable situations. She is full of empathy for them too, which made this book so compelling. Evvie Drake Starts Over is an easy read, but not necessarily a light one. There’s death, disappointment, estrangement, emotional abuse – a lot of difficult things to deal with. AND THERE IS BASEBALL! I am a HUGE baseball fan and I loved the baseball parts. (But if you don’t like baseball, don’t worry- the baseball parts aren’t that long or very technical). I just wish Dean hadn’t been a Yankee.

There are so many little details in the book that I loved… Dean’s pinball machine, the depiction of a hotel restaurant they went to, a domestic mishap at the end involving a can of nails – these are the types of things that I notice and that make me feel like I am there experiencing what’s happening in the pages. I can’t believe this is Holmes’ first novel.

Evvie Drake Starts Over is a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable summer read. I am so glad I read it. I just wish I still had 20 pages left.

THE MOTHER-IN-LAW by Sally Hepworth

The Mother-In-Law is a domestic thriller with a complex character at its core: Diana, devoted wife and mother and mother-in-law to Lucy. When Diana turns up dead of an apparent suicide and the facts don’t add up (the autopsy reveals that she didn’t have breast cancer, as she had told her kids, and her suicide note is buried deep in a drawer), the question becomes, did someone kill her? Why?

Diana is an interesting woman. She’s deeply in love with her husband, and a loving mother to her children, but she refuses to use her sizable wealth to help them, even when they plead. She’s very judgmental of her daughter-in-law, and does typical mother-in-law stuff intended to undermine Lucy and withhold affection. The book is told through flashbacks after Diana’s death, as Hepworth teases out Diana’s relationships from Lucy and Diana’s perspectives, offering a view of a woman who was highly principled but also imperfect. Diana made mistakes where her family was concerned, and those mistakes created motives that conceivably could have fueled a murder by more than one suspect.

The Mother-in-Law caught my eye because of unique setup and the relationship at its heart. It is a fast read, one that I’d characterize as popcorn. It gets you hooked, but in the end, it’s pretty light. To be honest, I couldn’t even remember how it all resolved when I sat down to write this review. (I think I remember now but I am not near the book and can’t confirm.) I am not always the biggest fan of psychological thrillers, as I find them light on character development and ultimately forgettable. And while there is more emphasis on character in The Mother-In-Law than in many other thrillers, in the end, it’s a psychological thriller and a mystery, which just aren’t my favorite genres.

I’d recommend The Mother-in-Law as a beach or travel read. It’s engrossing and engaging while you’re reading it, but in the end it’s still pretty popcorn-y.

Everything You Need To Know About EDIWTB

Hi EDIWTB Readers! There are a lot of new visitors here, so I thought it would be a good time to give an update on the blog, and let you know about some other places where you can connect with me and other readers.

This blog, Everyday I Write The Book, is where I post reviews of the books I’ve read. I generally read contemporary and literary fiction, with some memoirs and non-fiction thrown in. This year, I gave myself a goal of 60 books, and I’m on pace to meet that goal. I have a busy life with kids and a full-time job, so while this number is a lot lower than most of the book bloggers I know, it’s (kind of) manageable for me. I post reviews here pretty much every week. You can subscribe to updates via email, or follow the EDIWTB Facebook page, where I post links to each of my reviews.

This year, I also started the EDIWTB 2019 Reading Challenge, which consists of 12 books in 12 categories over the course of the year. We have a Facebook group for the challenge, so if you’re interested in joining or following along, just request to be added to the group. I have gotten the easy categories out of the way – debut novel, memoir – and have the hard ones left, like book written the year I was born and self-help. The rest of the year will be interesting.

In addition to this blog, I also co-host a weekly podcast about books called The Readerly Report with my friend Nicole Bonia, who is a great reader. Our tastes mostly overlap, but she is more adventurous than I am. We talk about reading trends, books we’ve finished, upcoming releases, new paperbacks and more. We also have fantastic guests on the show like Anne Bogel and Ron Charles as well as fellow blogger/podcasters like Sarah Dickinson and Catherine Gilmore. The podcast is a great complement to EDIWTB. The Readerly Report has a Facebook page and a Facebook group – please follow and join.

You can also find me on Instagram, where I post photos of the books I read next to my dog Lucky, who has the exact same expression in every photo.

I LOVE hearing from EDIWTB readers. What have you read that you found out about on this blog? What have you read that I should read? Did I get something totally wrong? Tell me! You can email me at gayle@everydayiwritethebookblog.com or comment on the blog.

Thank you for reading and for your support and enthusiasm for the blog. I look forward to connecting!

Oh, and where the blog’s bizarre name came from? The 80s, of course! It’s a song by Elvis Costello.

FOREVER IS THE WORST LONG TIME by Camille Pagán

Forever Is The Worst Long Time by Camille Pagán is a bittersweet story about the unexpected paths that life can take – and the adjustments we make to accommodate them. The book centers on a love triangle: in his mid 20s, James Hernandez travels from Michigan to NY to meet his best friend Rob’s new girlfriend, Lou. Unfortunately for him, he falls in love with her, kicking off a frustrating decade of longing and stasis in the rest of his life. An aspiring author, he can’t commit to a book, and, in his romantic life, he shies from longterm commitment as well. When Rob and Lou hit a rough patch in their marriage, James find himself with an opportunity to act, finally, on his feelings – a reckless decision that has serious ramifications for all three.

I was expecting a light read when I picked up Forever Is The Worst Long Time, and it started out that way. But as the book progressed and the characters got older, the book got more serious. I don’t want to give away too much in this review, but I found this book to be moving and quite memorable. There are a lot of relationships to explore here – friendships, parents and children, and couples – and Pagán skillfully conveys how they evolve and mature over time.

I can only find one thing to complain about: I didn’t find Lou as compelling as I needed her to be to be the convincing center of this long triangle. She was sort of opaque, with her inner feelings a mystery through a lot of the book. I wanted to understand her better – or at least understand why she deserved to be the object of Jim’s love for so long.

I listened to Forever Is The Worst Long Time on audio until I chose to finish it off in print. The narrator, Timothy Andres Pabon, was an excellent choice for James, who narrates the book. His depiction of James as steady, understated and quiet was spot on. (Unfortunately, like many male narrators, his female voices were not good.)

Forever Is The Worst Long Time was a pleasant surprise for me. I’ll be looking into other books by Pagán.