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Not So Neighborly   Leave a comment

The Woman Next Door

The title of Yewande Omotoso’s novel The Woman Next Door is pleasantly ambiguous. There are actually two women living next door to one another with much more than a property line separating them.

Both women are older widows, had impressive careers; one is white and the other black. The setting is suburban Cape Town, South Africa. Neither is happy and each covets something the other has. Despite these similarities they are barely civil to one another.

Of the two, Hortensia is the most acerbic, although Marion is only slightly less prickly. The interactions between them are exercises in seeing who can sling the deepest barb. Marion is not Hortensia’s only victim; her caustic manner assumes an equal opportunity approach. Hortensia might as well wear a t-short with a warning label: stay out of my way.

In a well-paced style, the author reveals the women’s past which helps explain their attitudes toward each other and the world. An accident forces the pair together, but the situation is far from amicable. Even though it is Hortensia who offers the first semblance of a peace offering, it’s evident the gesture has ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Marion’s efforts to extend an olive branch appear more genuine.

Omotoso’s writing is vivid and engaging. The story begs an answer to the questions of Hortensia’s universal dislike of people and Marion’s general unhappiness.

At the risk of needing a spoiler alert, the ending is the weakest element of the narrative. However, overall it’s poignant on many levels.

The Woman Next Door
Four Bookmarks
Picador, 2016
278 pages

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Beneath the Surface   Leave a comment

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Jennifer Egan is masterful at setting the scene and evoking another era in Manhattan Beach, her recent novel. Her characters, their emotions and their resolve are captivating. The narrative is part love story, part gangster tale in an historic World War II, (mostly) New York City setting.

As a young girl, Anna Kerrigan tagged along with her father, Eddie, on his errands, presumably for the union. On one such outing, the 11-year-old and Eddie visit Dexter Styles at his mansion-like home on a private beach. It’s evident that the Kerrigans don’t share the same lifestyle as Styles.

By contrast, Anna’s family lives in a small, sixth floor apartment. Her younger sister, Lydia, is severely disabled requiring constant care.

Fast forward and Anna is now the sole provider for her mother and sister thanks to her job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where she becomes the first female diver. Her father disappeared years earlier and the country is at war.

The progression of sorrow Anna experiences regarding Eddie begins with anguish which evolves into anger before settling into indifference. For the reader, however, his long absence is hard to ignore. Egan wants it that way. Meanwhile, Styles resurfaces. Anna remembers him; even though she catches his attention, he has no recollection of her as a child.

The interactions of this trio of main characters across time, complete with back stories, hopes and foibles, provide the book’s focus.

Ultimately, it’s about reinventing oneself and the toll it takes to do so.

Manhattan Beach
Four-and-a-quarter Bookmarks
Scribner, 2017
433 pages

Wild Imaginations   Leave a comment

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Active imaginations, fear of the unknown, religion, science and a bit of romance are among the themes in Sarah Perry’s epic novel, The Essex Serpent.

The setting is 1893 England. Cora Seaborne is introduced as a soon-to-be well-off widow. Her marriage is an unhappy one, so her husband’s death, which occurs within the first chapter, is not unwelcome. Her husband’s physician is enchanted with Cora, so is her friend/companion, Martha. Her son Francis is less enamored. These characters, and several others integral to the narrative, are well-developed as passionate, intelligent and flawed.

Cora, Martha and Francis travel to Essex where there are long-standing rumors of an unseen, but terrifying creature lurking near a small coastal town. The idea of documenting its presence appeals to Cora. Her friendship with Will, the local pastor, and his wife provide friendship.it’s clear there is the potential for something more than platonic between Cora and Will, this is an attraction of minds. He is certain the panic stirred by the unseen, unnamed creature reflects a lack of faith among his parishioners. She, on the other hand, is intrigued by the idea of discovering, perhaps, a new species.

Cora is aware of the feelings held by her late husband’s doctor, yet she does little to discourage his interest. When she beckons, he appears. Generally, the women are portrayed as strong-minded and intelligent, while several of the men are satisfied simply being in their presence.

Despite the dark setting, Perry injects humor and light moments.

The Essex Serpent
Four Bookmarks
Custom House, 2016
418 pages

Pervasive Superstition   Leave a comment

Hannah Kent has a gift for describing squalor and the role of superstition among the most vulnerable. This talented writer, whose debut novel, Burial Rites, was set in Iceland, now transports readers to rural Ireland in The Good People. The ambiguous title refers to the name given to evil faeries and those with virtuous, albeit misdirected, intentions.

Set in nineteenth century rural Ireland, Kent’s engaging narrative follows three women: Nora, a recent widow, with a sickly grandson; Nance, known for her curative powers; and Mary, the young maid Nora hires to help care for the boy who can neither speak nor walk, although he once did.

Nora’s shame for her grandson is so extreme she keeps him hidden and is surprised to learn from Mary that the villagers know of his presence. In fact, they have already deemed him a changeling, a creature from another world, that of the Good People. How else can the locals explain the ill fortunes that have recently befallen their community: death, cows no longer milking, illness and more.

Nora unsuccessfully seeks medical help, then solace from the new priest who both believe the lad will soon die.

Imagining that her grandson has been abducted and the withered but breathing body is left in his place, Nora turns to Nance who is certain she has a cure. Young Mary empathizes with the helpless child and is caught in the middle. She’s skeptical of the older women and their motives. Yet, the question regarding Nance’s powers lingers.

The Good People
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
380 pages

Growing Old With Attitude   Leave a comment

No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside

Imagine Bridget Jones at age 60 and you’ll have a good idea of Marie Sharp, the narrator of the terribly-titled No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Ironically, I received this apty subtitled paperback – “Diary of a 6oth year” – at my own book club’s holiday gift exchange. Rest assured, I have no intention of leaving my book group!

Author Virginia Ironside tells Marie’s story through diary entries. Marie is a no-nonsense woman about to turn 60; she has no qualms about doing so. Rather, she embraces the idea of the milestone birthday as a rite of passage which will allow her to do as she pleases rather than striving to meet expectations held by others. In the process she has decided to give up men and focus on a few close friendships. She vows not to do anything she doesn’t want to, in addition to avoiding book clubs this includes joining a gym and learning Italian.

Marie is a former art teacher, divorcee, the mother of a grown son and has several good friends. References to her carefree days in the 1960s indicate she hasn’t spent her life as a stick-in-the-mud.

Ironside injects plenty of humor among several poignant observations. Predictably, Marie experiences the cycle of life and plenty of surprises during the 18 months of entries she shares. She is, perhaps, most surprised by the depth of emotion she has for her newborn grandson. Despite her vow of no romantic liaisons, it’s possible that door may not be completely barricaded.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Plume Books, 2008
231 pages

On the Political ‘Highway to Hell’   1 comment

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History by [Tur, Katy]

Unbelievable is the perfect title for Katy Tur’s account of Donald Trump’s path to the White House. It’s also the most apt description of our country’s current political situation.

Tur, an NBC reporter, spent a year and half traveling with the Trump campaign around the country from rural to urban settings – and many times back again. As part of the press corps she had a figurative front row seat; although, literally it was often a back-of-the-room-in-a-makeshift-cage view of the businessman/reality television personality. She saw and spoke with those who supported him. And, perhaps most difficult of all, she was singled out by Trump (on several occasions) at his rallies; this led to threats from Trump’s supporters. She listened to his inconsistent statements, rude remarks and ambiguous assertions. At times the candidate played nice, but Tur quickly learned to be leery.

Tur recounts the events leading to the election in two ways. Each chapter begins with a brief description of some aspect of Election Day 2016. The rest of chapter, details her experiences on the campaign trail. The book starts with the 535th day before the election.

As well written and interesting as this book it, it is also difficult to read. The language and actions of Trump and his supporters was/are bewildering. I found myself becoming upset. Fortunately, the book captures many behind-the-scenes moments and the author reveals a lot about her past, her hopes and the personal toll taken in her experience on the road.

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
Four Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2017
291 pages

Fun With Tamales   Leave a comment

tamales

Restaurant dining offers various experiences beyond not wanting, or not knowing what, to cook at a given time. We want more than sustenance, and I typically desire something better than what I can prepare myself. Then, I want to know how it’s done so I can fix the dish myself sometime. Cooking classes offer a variation of these themes. Each time I participate in such an activity I learn a lot and make some new friends. This is just what happened with Barbara Santos-McAllister’s recent Tamales Class offered through her local business, Cocina Corazon.

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Tamales are nothing new to me, but it’s been years since I last made them. I have a treasured hand-written recipe from my grandmother with her instructions, but they’re vague and come from having prepared them a lot. Some specifics are missing.

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With seven other women, in a kitchen belonging to Barbara’s friend, we met to make tamales with four different fillings: pork with green chile, chicken mole, poblano with cheese, and dulce (sweet). Barbara did a massive amount of work before the class. Not only did she have all of the necessary ingredients at hand and prepare all of the fillings in advance, she also had food for us to nosh throughout the class. Her salsa almost overshadowed everything. Almost.

We learned to make masa, spread it and the filling on the corn husks. Then waited while they steamed, which was the only downside. Even though it was fun, it was a very long evening!

Cocina Corazon
Four-and-a-half Plates