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

Another View of World History   Leave a comment

Review: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Meghan's ...

You‘d be forgiven for thinking A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters is massive with each section retelling what’s already been shared in the Bible, scientific journals and cultural studies. Instead, Julian Barnes evokes humor and pathos as he draws from those chronicles while creating a narrative about survival.

The half chapter, between 9 and 10, entitled “Parenthesis” is about love.

An unlikely narrator in the first chapter shares its experience as a stowaway aboard Noah’s ark. In a vastly differing account from what’s taught in Sunday schools, Noah is portrayed as unintelligent and a drunk. Although references to the stowaway occur in a few subsequent chapters, its role as narrator ends once the ark reaches shore much, much longer than the 40 days told in popular versions.

Ships, passengers and violent seas – well, in some cases, just violence at sea – set the scene throughout the narrative, as does a trial, space travel and contemporary searches for the ark. Each section (chapter) can stand alone, but it’s important to remember the book’s theme, which is what the title implies.

Just as some history books often get bogged down in too much detail, Barnes falls in line with the genre. For example, the chapter appropriately entitled “The Wars on Religion,” about the trial of woodworm accused of blasphemy, while initially amusing, gets old fast.

Even the final chapter, “The Dream,” which provides an idea of heaven is too long, especially since even the narrator grows tired of it.

A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Vintage International, 1989
307 pages

Studying for Citizenship   4 comments

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My grandmother came to the United States with her mother, two older sisters and younger brother when she was a young teen. I don’t know much about what her life was like when she arrived. I do know she was particularly proud when she became an U.S. citizen.

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I always thought she obtained her citizenship soon after her arrival. It turns out it was much later: when my mother was in high school. My mom said she drove her mother to the night classes. Other times during the week the two would study; each doing her homework as a means of reaching something better. My mom went on to be the first in her family to not only earn a bachelor’s degree, but also a master’s and doctorate. Her mom studied for the opportunity to enjoy the rights associated with being a citizen of the United States.

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For many years my grandmother believed she was already a citizen because of her residency and marriage to my Grandfather. That proved not to be the case. Apparently, some things never change. One of our daughters-in-law is from Mexico. After marrying my son the process of her obtaining a resident visa was daunting, expensive and timely. She hasn’t even begun the journey toward citizenship. That’s another story.

Even though I wasn’t around when it happened, I do know becoming a citizen was something my Grandmother was extremely proud of. I remember her talking about it every election knowing she had a voice in democracy.

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I suspect, based on the book she used to study, she was more well versed in the U.S. Constitution than most people born in this country. She never took the right to vote lightly. I can only hope this is true of people in this, the 2020, election.

Expectations and Perceptions   Leave a comment

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In Trust Exercise Susan Choi raises the question of perspective; everyone has their own version of a situation. Here it isn’t immediately clear whose is who’s.

David and Sarah are students at an elite performing arts high school; they have a summer romance between their freshman and sophomore years. They, their peers and Mr. Kingsley, the theatre instructor, do little to acknowledge the relationship once school resumes in the fall.

The novel’s three sections are all entitled “Trust Exercise.” This is clever since it not only relates to the classroom experiences designed by Mr. Kingsley to teach the students to depend on each other; it also admonishes the reader to have faith in the narrative.

The first section focuses on David and Sarah’s relationship with supporting roles provided by their classmates, teacher, parents and exchange students from England.

The second “Trust Exercise” re-introduces Karen, a character previously, albeit briefly, mentioned. The switch takes some adjustment since the storyline is now more hers than Sarah or David’s. It’s as if the roles have been switched from supporting player to star. Additionally, a switch from the omniscient narrator to Karen’s voice regularly occurs.

Asides to the reader create a theatrical ambiance, as if to remind of the ties to the performing arts. Drama, in all its forms –onstage and beyond the proscenium arch – is ever present. 

Choi has crafted believable characters in credible settings with the challenge of considering different points of view regarding relationships, commitment and loyalty.

Trust Exercise

Four bookmarks

Henry Holt and Co., 2019

257 pages

Looks, Lies and Life   Leave a comment

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The Lying Life of Adults is Elena Ferrante’s new novel. Although it has similarities to her Neapolitan Quartet, notably the setting and a young female protagonist, it’s more introspective and a little less engaging.

Giovanna is a young teenager who overhears a conversation between her parents in which her father describes her as ugly. In fact, he says, she looks as bad as his estranged sister, Vittoria. Until this point, Giovanna has admired both her parents, felt secure in her family, and was completely unaware of any relatives, let alone her aunt.

The eavesdropping leads Giovanna to find Vittoria and discover not only a part of Naples she never knew, but also family secrets ultimately leading to a transformation of looking beyond the obvious. It’s not necessarily an engrossing narrative, but it is Ferrante. Adolescence is a difficult time; the author deftly illustrates this with the self-absorbed, manipulative youth and adults.

The author is at her best describing the class structure within Italy, in particular Naples. It’s easy to visualize how education plays a role in the lives of the residents of this southern Italian coastal city. References to dialect and coarse behavior further emphasize the line dividing social classes.

It is problematic Giovanna is not a particularly inspiring character. Yes, her independence does eventually surface, but her relationships with others are one-dimensional. Frankly, she’s a wimp. Granted, Vittoria is odd and her parents lose their bearings. Nonetheless, her efforts to find herself in their world of deceptions and accusations really should be more interesting.

The Lying Life of Adults

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Europa Editions, 2020

322 pages

More Than a Uniform   Leave a comment

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If you suspect The Women in Black is about nuns, you’re wrong. No worries, although the title would work for such a subject. Instead, these are saleswomen at Goode’s Department Store in Sydney, Australia, who wear black frocks.

Madeline St. John follows four, including Lisa a teenage temporary employee, who work in Ladies Cocktail and Model Gowns. Patty is in a childless, unhappy marriage; Fay is single and weary of the dating scene; Magda is a sophisticated Slovenian emigrant.

The writing is sparse, yet captivating. Each main character is vividly portrayed, as is Goode’s. With the holidays rapidly approaching, the store prepares for an onslaught of last minute shoppers.

Young Lisa has finished school and awaits the results of her final exams. She’s intelligent with dreams of being a poet and going to university – something her father adamantly opposes. Magda, who interacts little with Patty or Fay, takes Lisa under her wing.

When not at the store, St. John provides glimpses of each character’s home life. Only Magda is truly happy, which may be attributed to her appreciation and acknowledgment of what life in Australia offers her compared to what she left behind in her home country.

On the heels of the Christmas rush is the popular annual sale. Preparations for it, plans for how the women will spend New Year’s Eve and wondering about the results of Lisa’s exams, contribute to the anticipation the author creates. The result makes this a rapid-page-turner of a novel.

The Women in Black

Four Bookmarks

Scribner 1993

209 pages