Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill

A. Manette Ansay (Adult Fiction)

There are many ways to describe Ellen Grier: wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, caregiver, teacher.  All of these different roles and yet Ellen still feels incomplete…invisible almost.  She had been happy in Illinois in their rented house, but after her husband lost his job, she and her family are back in their hometown of Holly’s Field, Wisconsin and living with her in-laws at 512 Vinegar Hill—a harsh, loveless, and cold home filled with secrets.  She wants to be happy, but finds herself drowning under a sea of hopelessness and despair.  Can Ellen save herself and the ones she loves before Vinegar Hill consumes them all?

Vinegar Hill is an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  I’ve read several of her recommendations and often found them to be “hit” or “miss”.  This book is clearly a “miss”.  On the back cover, a review from Washington Post Book World calls it “Sweet, tender, and chilling.”  After reading this and several other critics’ comments printed on the book, I’m wondering if I actually read the same novel that they did.  Sweet?  Tender?  Vinegar Hill is the type of book that would make Edgar Allan Poe pause and say, “Wow!  Now THAT’S dark!”  This is a depressing, depraved, and disturbing story devoid of purpose, value, or meaning.  We’re introduced to several generations of individuals whose intolerance, callousness, cruelty, meanness and spite are clearly hereditary.  It’s an endless cycle of verbal and physical abuse with a skosh of religious hallucinations and psychological delusions thrown in for interest.  Ellen’s daughter, Amy, “buries” her “dead” dolls in shoeboxes; her husband, James, sees his children as the personification of Halloween with their skeletal hands and sunken ghostly eyes; and her elderly and bitter mother-in-law, Mary-Margaret, has dreams of her deceased twin infants growing back inside of her.  THIS is sweet and tender?  The Chicago Tribune even called Vinegar Hill “one of the year’s best books.”  I’m absolutely speechless.  I found the characters unpleasant and unsympathetic, religious judgements are frivolously tossed out as if they were beads at Mardi Gras, intelligence is scorned and vilified, and helplessness is encouraged and celebrated.

When Ellen sought advice from her fellow co-worker, she was told, “No one gets used to anything, they just get numb.”  After a while, with the constant derisions and disparagements, I too became numb and found myself eagerly counting down the pages until I could finally close the covers of this book and walk—or actually run—away from Vinegar Hill and all of its inhabitants…never to look back again.

Rating: 2/5

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Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas    

Oscar Hijuelos (Adult Fiction)

It was around Christmas when a young foundling named Edward was given a home, a family, and a last name.  His adoptive father, Mr. Ives Senior (a foundling himself), managed a printing plant and gave his new son two brothers and a sister, provided him with a good amount of encouragement, and—most importantly—taught him how to pray.  While growing up, Edward basked in the cultural richness that surrounded him in New York during the 20s and 30s.  By the 1950s, his creativity landed him in a Madison Avenue ad agency where he worked, thrived, and would eventually retire.  His simple and humble life would involve marriage, children, delight and despair and through it all, Edward will come to realize that the life he imagined for himself is very different from the life that he’s been given.

Oscar Hijuelos delivers a beautifully written novel that is vividly detailed and rich in historical insights and context, yet I found myself disappointed and wishing that I had enjoyed this book more.  First, it was difficult connecting with the main character.  Hijuelos often interjects various characters’ backstories throughout the book.  This was helpful in creating history and perspective, but the constant interruptions ultimately sacrificed intimacy for insight and greatly hampered the flow of the story, which leads to the second point.  It was extremely challenging to stay immersed in the story.  Rather than focus on a central theme, this book read more like a series of random thoughts, insights, and memories.  Hijuelos simply went off on one tangent too many and the book becomes a regrettable product of information overload.

This book mainly centers on New York and spans over several decades.  In that respect, it was interesting to see a city in constant transformation and evolution during the cultural, political, and social movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  I also appreciated the spiritual issues that Hijuelos covered without being overtly religious.  We see Edward’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his faith and the eventual effect it has on his physical and mental health.  But through life’s tragedies and triumphs, Mr. Edward Ives remains a sentimental, kind, and honorable man, father, husband, and friend who realizes that Christmas isn’t his story, but it’s His story—the babe born in a manger who would die on a cross.  Although Edward often finds himself grappling with a life full of uncertainty and anguish, through his faith and belief, Mr. Ives finds peace in knowing that his afterlife is secured and in good hands.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Ives.

Rating: 3/5

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