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What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund is a series of visual sound-bites and the result is a lack of substance.

Granted, Mendelsund is a book cover designer and art director; it makes sense he’s interested in the visual aspects. My initial impression was the author would focus on what the imagination conjures as we read. This is not the case; Mendelsund argues authors do not give readers enough information to complete pictures in our minds.

Through a series of references to Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse, along with a few other titles, Mendelsund maintains it’s impossible to see characters the same way the writer does. The content is comprised of numerous graphics and limited text. This includes one word on a page, single sentences, a hodgepodge of visual images, brief paragraphs, pages with terms crossed out and an assortment of illustrations, both familiar and not.

The fact that everything, from the cover to the illustrations is in black and white further emphasizes the author’s premise: readers do not get to know a novel’s characters in a true and intimate way. Frankly, I don’t buy it.

Reading is personal even if a book has universal appeal. Granted, my image of Ishmael  may be different from someone else’s, but is that a bad thing? When I see a movie based on a book I am almost always disappointed. Why? Partly because the characters in the film are not the way I saw them on the page.

What We See When We Read

Two-and-a-half Bookmarks

Vintage Books, 2014

419 pages

Timeless Battles   Leave a comment

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I believe most fiction is tied to facts. Yes, The Cold Millions by Jess Walter is a novel. Still, its back drop is a fictionalized account of the timeless struggle of poor against rich, power versus powerless. It’s also about brotherly love, sacrifice and a desire for a better life when efforts are repeatedly thwarted.

Early 20th century Spokane, Wash., is inhabited by mining magnates, prostitutes, corrupt police and vaudeville performers.  There’s also a small group of unionists and socialists struggling for better pay and free speech. Gig Dolan is part of the latter group and his 16-year-old brother, Rye, is less committed to the cause. Both are devoted to each other.

In addition to the lively descriptions, not only of Spokane, but Seattle and several squalid mining communities, Walter’s characters are vibrant. They include tramps, murderers and suffragists. The faces of many are covered with dust as if their existence is diminished by a lack of opportunities. Gig, an idealist, once dreamt of being on the stage; Rye wants only a place to call home. Partly due to age, he’s uncertain about the causes Gig champions. Nonetheless, he gets caught in the fray when riots instigated by the police break out.

Initially naïve, Rye’s transformation comes about not only because of his love for Gig, but through his own experience of being exploited, and his understanding of what it means when others put their lives at risk.

The era and location represent another time, but the struggle is ongoing.

The Cold Millions

Four Bookmarks

Harper, 2020

343 pages

Stretching the Strength of Family Ties   Leave a comment

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Two sisters, two time frames and two stories are the foundation of Liz Moore’s novel Long Bright River. Mickey is the responsible older sister: an introvert, intelligent and a police officer who patrols the Philadelphia neighborhood of her youth. Kacey is outgoing, estranged from Mickey and an addict.

A spate of murders, including in Mickey’s district, results in her search for Kacey who’s gone missing. The narrative alternates between “Then” and “Now”, as told by Mickey. The former is about the sisters as young children living with their embittered grandmother; the latter follows Mickey’s search for Kacey in hopes she isn’t – and doesn’t become – another murder victim.

Even with its taut element of suspense, making this a rapid page turner, it is more than crime fiction. It’s a family love story about stretching the limits of trust. Moore’s writing evokes vivid images of hookers, drug dealers, corner stores and abandoned buildings along the streets of Mickey’s beat.

Equally as gripping is the girls’ past: their close bonds and the events contributing to the choices each makes. Their mother died of a drug overdose and their father abandoned them.

Mickey’s career choice and her reclusive personality inspire little trust among her family or Kacey’s friends. This stymies Mickey’s efforts to find her sister.

The past is not the only obstacle Mickey faces. Circumstances force her to question those with whom she works. Moore injects plenty of surprises leaving the reader to remember there’s always more than one side to a story.

Long Bright River

Four Bookmarks

Riverhead Books, 2020

482 Pages

Posted February 5, 2021 by bluepagespecial in Uncategorized

Not Always Two of a Kind   Leave a comment

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How close can two people be while maintaining separate, distinct identities? This question and the power of language are the driving forces in Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians.

Anyone with an affinity for words, whether written or spoken, should find this novel intriguing. Twin sisters, Laurel and Daphne, share a secret language. Not only do they finish each other’s sentences, they do the same with one another’s thoughts. They are best friends. Yet, despite their closeness, perforations in their familiarity do surface.  Initially, this happens only occasionally but eventually evolves into something more significant.

The girls’ love of words is as much a part of their personalities as their twinhood. Thanks to Laurel, Daphne is promoted from her job as a receptionist in a New York City weekly to a copy editor. Laurel eventually becomes a poet, but not until her singular love for her daughter further separates the twins.

Most chapters begin with definitions of obscure words from Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Their father brought the dictionary home when the girls were young and it became something they pored over until they left home as young adults.

Identical twins hold a fascination to most. Laurel and Daphne are aware of this, but don’t always relish being the centers of attention. Schine has created two, well-defined characters in Laurel and Daphne. She has also crafted a world which has difficulty distinguishing between them.

The Grammarians

Four Bookmarks

Sarah Crichton Books, 2019

258 pages

A Past Booker Prize Winner   Leave a comment

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The White Tiger is one of many names the  narrator Balram Halwai gives himself  in a series of letters he writes describing his life as a servant, driver, wanted man and entrepreneur. The letters, written over the course of seven nights and addressed to the Chinese premier, are confessional while providing insight into Indian life. Early in the narrative, Balram admits he’s wanted for the murder of his employer.

Aravind Adiga’s novel, through the letters, details Balram’s life as the son of a rickshaw driver in a small village. Although intelligent, Balram’s education is cut short when he’s forced to do menial work in a tea shop to contribute to his family’s nominal income. Eventually, he learns to drive and becomes the driver for a wealthy family. This is a change of fortune in many ways, including a move to Delhi.

This is not simply about the haves and have-nots. Balram can’t help but see the differences between the rich and the poor. As a servant he’s barely acknowledged as a human. Yet he’s philosophical as he earns a token wage which includes a place to sleep, albeit one teeming with cockroaches.

Balram is attentive to the activities and, particularly, the conversations of his employers. His awareness of the discrepancies around him helps set in motion a plan for change.  The letters are more than Balram’s history; they also foreshadow his future. Adiga incorporates humor, mystery and commentary to create an engaging story about survival and success.

The White Tiger

Four bookmarks

FreePress, 2008

276 pages

Exploring the Familiar and the New   1 comment

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I knew a couple who, after becoming empty nesters, announced they now live in “Naked City.” I appreciated this for its literal and figurative meanings. Not only could bodies be bare, so could parental responsibilities (of course, these never fully disappear, only their dominance over daily life).  For many couples the milestone raises the question: what next?

Kim Brown Seely addresses this in Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another. I learned about it from a friend’s podcast, nuWriters. The hosts discussed the book one week and interviewed Seely the next. Both episodes intrigued me. Seely shares the emotions associated with a new phase of life with honesty and humor, she also provides vivid descriptions of the journey she and her husband, Jeff, undertook aboard a 54-foot sailboat through the Salish Sea and Inside Passage to the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Seelys are successful professionals, married for nearly 30 years when their two sons are both soon to be in college; their youngest as a freshman. As if launching him isn’t enough of a new experience, they magnify it by embarking on a sailing expedition, which serves multiple purposes including to reconnect as a couple and to seek the elusive white bear (known as the spirit bear).

Although her husband had some sailing experience, Seely did not. This doesn’t deter them, and the two learn to, literally, navigate together. It’s not always easy, but even as their relationship is stretched, so does it become stronger.

Unchartered: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Net Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another

Four Bookmarks

Sasquatch Books, 2019

275 pages

Missed Opportunities   Leave a comment

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I’ve read most of Anne Tyler’s novels. Certain things are constant: Baltimore is the setting, the characters are often melancholy and glimpses into everyday life are a sure bet. Redhead by the Side of the Road is no exception.

Micah Mortimer is set in his ways; he’s a self-described nerd,  a Tech Hermit, the name of his freelance computer repair business. He also works as a handyman in an apartment building and this earns him free rent. His basement apartment, however, doesn’t offer much charm.

Micah has his routines, some are daily such as running first thing every morning and wiping down the kitchen after meals; others involve specific chores. For example, Monday is floor mopping day. In spite of the mundane activities, there’s something inviting about Micah. While he takes his household/work chores seriously, he has also demonstrates a whimsical side to his personality while undertaking them: He speaks with a bad French accent.

Micah’s girlfriend, Cass, suspects she’s about to be evicted and the college-age son of an old college sweetheart appears on Micah’s doorstep. Each of these disruptions causes Micah to evaluate his life and acknowledge his loneliness.  He isn’t where he is because he lacks personality, but he lacks perception, at times.

This doesn’t rank among my most beloved Anne Tyler books, but neither is it my least favorite. However, as someone who needs to wear glasses, I am especially entertained by the title and what it refers to. I won’t spoil it.

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Three-and-a-half bookmarks

Alfred A. Knopf, 2020

178 pages

In Plain View   Leave a comment

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The lies we tell ourselves, and others, to create new lives is the theme of The Vanishing HalfBrit Bennett’s novel addresses several timely issues including racism, sexism, privilege and gender identity. These are daunting points to undertake, but Bennett, without diminishing their importance, imbues the narrative with compassion and wonder.

At its heart, this is about twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who, as teenagers, ran away from home: a small, rural community of fair-skinned Blacks. The story tracks their lives as they eventually take separate paths, both figuratively and literally. Desiree returns home with Jude, her  young, very dark daughter in tow;  Stella passes herself as white, marries, moves to an exclusive area in Los Angeles and constantly worries she’ll be exposed.

The emphasis on Jude’s blackness drives the uncommon, perhaps unpopular, notion racism is only something whites project to nonwhites. Within her own, albeit pale, Black town, Jude’s been shunned since the day she arrived. Despite this, she doesn’t see herself as a victim and hers is the most engaging subplot within the novel thanks to those she interacts with most.

Although some stereotypes exist, most of Bennett’s characters are well-defined.  This goes beyond physical descriptions, but includes their joys, heartbreaks and deep emotions.

The settings change but the most important action occurs in the rural south and Los Angeles. Incorporating different locales makes it easy to see problems aren’t restricted to geographic regions. And, lies travel easily from one place to another.

The Vanishing Half

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Riverhead Books, 2020

343 pages

“Notes From a Young Black Chef”   Leave a comment

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Kwame Onwuachi’s Notes From a Young Black Chef is considered a memoir (it says so right on the cover), but more accurately it could be seen as an engaging treatise on what it means to be a black man in America.  

The narrative begins just before his Washington, D.C., restaurant is set to launch. Onwuachi is catering an event commemorating the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s a long way from his roots in the Bronx.

The descriptive writing reveals Onwwauchi ‘s tenacious and, often, reckless personality. He didn’t always envision himself as a chef, although cooking was an important part of his life. Thanks largely to his mother who, for many years, ran a catering business from her home kitchen. While many of her dishes reflected a Southern influence, once he began working in kitchens Onwauchi knew he wanted a different focus. He wanted to be associated with upscale, fine dining.

Although he loved the traditional meals from his youth, he wanted to elevate them as a means of moving past stereotypes.

Onwauchi, a Culiniary Institute of America grad, encountered numerous obstacles (many of which he made himself) before becoming a chef. However, his passion for food along with a keen ability to hustle helped make this possible. Overcoming situations where expectations of him were low because of his race was another contributing factor to his success.

Onwauchi could have been another negative statistic, but determination and creativity helped make a dream reality.

Notes From a Young Black Chef

Four Bookmarks

Alfred A, Knopf, 2019

271 pages

Permission to Binge Read   1 comment

I like binge watching television shows, but I typically enjoy space/time between books when reading a series. Until recently, I’ve held to this; but all bets are off: it’s 2020.

Despite repeated rave reviews from friends, I’m a relative newcomer to Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries; I discovered them a few years ago.  Early on I realized I needed to pace myself because I knew I could easily fall under the spell of moving from one to the next with barely a breath in between.

I’ve read three in the past four weeks (with a brief break while waiting for a library copy to become available). When describing these mysteries I find myself using the word comforting, which probably sounds like an oxymoron given the context. Yet, the author imbues intelligence, sensitivity and humor into most of the recurring characters, especially Armand Gamache. With each subsequent work – Penny averages a book a year, sometimes more – the personalities are more distinct, more endearing.

Each mystery is finely crafted; the path to resolution is circuitous, but never superfluous.

Often, the setting is Three Pines, a village not far from Montreal. Initially, I wondered how such an isolated, idyllic and unpopulated locale could need the services of the national police so frequently. It’s no spoiler alert to simply note Three Pines is occasionally only a launching point.

I’m at the midpoint of Penny’s works and am wondering whether to charge ahead or slow down to extend the pleasure. It’s a quandary.  

     Four-and-a-half Bookmarks