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Challenging Einstein Amidst War and Love   Leave a comment

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Relativity, an impending war, Jewish struggles and romance collide in A Bend in the Stars, Rachel Barenbaum’s remarkable debut novel.

It’s 1914 Russia. The czar has placed restrictions on Jewish communities, and most males older than 12 are conscripted to fight in the war against Germany. Initially, Miri, her brother Vanya and their grandmother  maintain their comfortable lifestyle. In part, thanks to bribes but also, despite his religion, Vanya is recognized as a brilliant physicist at the university. Miri is one of the only female surgeons in the country.

Vanya is certain Einstein’s theory of relativity is inaccurate. He knows proof will provide his family the opportunity to leave Russia for America. Photos of an upcoming solar eclipse will help Vanya demonstrate his theory. Thus begins first a race to meet an American scientist before the eclipse occurs while also avoiding capture as a deserter.

Vanya’s mind holds the key to his family’s freedom. Miri’s chance encounter with a wounded solder leads the two to risk their lives as they go in search of her brother and his companion: her fiancé .

Short chapters, vivid descriptions and well-developed characters drive the narrative. The fear of capture, the threat of firing squads and the rapidly diminishing ability to trust anyone keep the reader entranced.

Barenbaum has crafted a beautiful work of fiction based on a skeleton of actual events. Readers know Miri’s journey will reach some kind of destination; still, it’s sad when it ends.

A Bend in the Stars
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks!
Grand Central Publishing, 2019
456 pages

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Homage to Gourmet Magazine   Leave a comment

Save Me the Plums

I’m a Ruth Reichl groupie. I have no idea what I would say if we ever came face-to-face, but it’s fun to imagine feeling like an awkward pre-teen at this point in my life if that were ever to occur.

Save Me the Plums is Reichl’s latest memoir. It focuses on her experiences as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.

Rather than begin with her first day on the job, Reichl instead invites the reader to share her first memory of the once-iconic magazine. She was eight years old and recalls specific stories that ignited her senses.

Then, in her heyday as dining critic for The New York Times she’s offered the job after meeting with first the editorial director of Conde Nast publications and later Si Newhouse, owner of the publishing conglomerate.

Reichl is initially reluctant. She’s a writer, not a manager, but, obviously, she takes the job. Interspersed with her recollections of the changes made to update Gourmet are a few recipes. Mostly, the narrative follows the magazine’s re-emergence from a stodgy publication out of touch with home cooks to something much more. The focus remained on food, but gives equal attention to quality writing.

It’s fun to read about Reichl’s reactions to having a driver and a clothing allowance. It’s enlightening to learn about the various aspects of putting a magazine together and learning about the people involved. It’s sad to see the efforts by Reichl and her team come to naught as Gourmet ends its days.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Random House, 2019
266 pages

Murder Family Style   3 comments

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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is both engaging and unnerving. The writing accounts for the former and the subject, which the title clearly reflects, explains the latter.

Korede is the good sister. She’s older, responsible and works as a nurse. She is single but is attracted to a doctor with whom she is friends. Her looks are considered plain. Meanwhile, her sister, Ayoola, is beautiful, flippant and kills off the men she dates. She relies on Korede to, literally, clean up the mess.

Yet, Ayoola’s most recent – the third — murder leaves her sister filled with guilt. She begins to worry that the same fate will befall the doctor who has succumbed to Ayoola’s charms.

In addition to the deaths, which for the most part warrant little attention from the police, the narrative explores the sisters’ relationship with their father. He’s an abusive, powerful man, whose character is portrayed in the past tense. The more that’s shared about him, the more one has to wonder how he died, particularly given Ayoola’s penchant for murder.

Braithwaite’s novel is about the strength of sisterly love, no matter how misguided, and the way in which dreams can be so easily burst in the name of loyalty. Short chapters and the terse vivid writing make this a fast read. The characters are easily imagined and a range of emotions, from sympathy to disappointment, is evoked.  It’s clear from the beginning that Ayoola isn’t good; the real surprise comes from Korede.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer

Four Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2018

226 pages

The Depth of Friendship   Leave a comment

I’m drawn to novels about women’s friendships: the premise of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See and I was not disappointed.

Set on the Korean Island of Jeju, the author provides an in-depth look at Korean culture involving female sea divers, an ever-changing political climate and the bonds of friendship that beautifully flourish before painfully disintegrating.

The elderly Young-sook narrates this captivating story of her friendship with Mi-ja. They are different in their experiences and backgrounds. Young-sook’s lineage boasts the respected sea women, divers who carefully harvest from the ocean for their livelihood. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. They learn to dive together; they share secrets, joys and losses.

As they grow-up their island undergoes numerous political changes beginning with Japanese colonialism to World War II then the Korean War. Poverty is a way of life for the villagers, but the sea women find solace beneath the water’s surface. Through vivid descriptions, See recreates the rural lifestyle of the islanders and the heartbreak they endure in war.

When marriages are arranged for Mi-Ja and Young-sook, they wonder how they’ll survive being apart from one another. Facing the harsh influences of the outside world, their friendship falters until rendered irreparable.

The progression of time is marked through the different regimes, cell phones and indoor plumbing.

Among the novel’s many beauties are the memory of the rich friendship, the presence of Mi-ja’s great granddaughter and, finally, the reader’s awareness of a single perspective being shared.

The Island of Sea Women
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Scribner, 2019
374 pages

Rejection and Survival   1 comment

Poetic and heartbreaking, harsh and heartwarming are all apt descriptions of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel combines two of my favorite elements in one: a love story and a mystery.

Kya is six years old when she watches as her mother, carrying a suitcase, walks away from the ramshackle family home in the North Carolina marshlands never looking back. Soon, her older siblings do likewise, leaving the child with her father, an often violent drunk. Eventually, he leaves, too.

The years pass and Kya not only survives on her own, but knows the birds, fauna, flora and tides that define the marsh; the land is her life. She’s maliciously referred to as the Marsh Girl by those in the nearby town. Through the kindness of Tate, a young boy a few years older, Kya learns to read and write. When he leaves for college years later, Chase, another young man, takes an interest in her. He’s popular, handsome and hides his relationship with Kya knowing it would tarnish his reputation.

When Chase is found dead, Kya is an immediate suspect.

Owens writing beautifully of the marsh, its inlets and the open sea beyond its horizon. Kya is an endearing character, although it’s hard, at times to believe she was able to successfully slip through the cracks and thrive on her own. She’s intelligent and resourceful, she’s also experienced heartbreak after heartbreak, but it’s easy to dispel the idea that she could, in fact, be a murderer.

Where the Crawdads Sing
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2018
370 pages

Being the Best Fit   Leave a comment

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Becoming, by Michelle Obama, loitered on my nightstand for months; I’d pick it up, read a little and abandon it again. Despite rave reviews from friends who’d read the book, I was initially underwhelmed. I wasn’t interested in her piano lessons and other accounts of her childhood. Yet, I stuck with it and was rewarded with what proved to be an engaging memoir.

During Obama’s time in the spotlight, I was impressed with her friendly, accessible demeanor and forthrightness. I came to appreciate these same attributes in her book. She truly came from humble beginnings. Her close-knit family, personal drive and obvious intellect helped propel her to the popularity she enjoyed as First Lady.

Obama shares her life story moving from those early years (piano lessons included) to her teens, from college to a high-powered legal career, from meeting Barack to becoming a mother. Each of the book’s sections highlights a specific period: “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us” and “Becoming More.” The latter focuses on her life in the public eye as the wife of the first African American president, her efforts to exceed expectations because of a sense that many wanted the Obamas to fail and her determination to create some semblance of a normal family life for her daughters.

Through an easy-going, almost conversational tone, Obama’s narrative evokes emotion, pride and, at times, dismay. This is about someone you’d like to meet. She’s already invited you into her life through her deeds. The book simply adds an exclamation point.

Becoming
Four-and-a-half Book marks
Crown Books, 2018
426 pages

Against the Odds   Leave a comment

 

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Fans of Trevor Noah will hear his voice when reading Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. His humor, sensitivity and ability to engage his audience are evident from the first chapter.

Noah recounts his experiences growing up in South Africa. He is the son of black South African woman and a white German father. Interracial relationships were forbidden.

Interspersed with his personal accounts of his childhood and adolescence are explanations of Apartheid. Consequently, Born a Crime not only entertains, but also educates. Hypocrisy and racial discrimination are dominant themes.

Yet, Noah learns to rely on his street smarts. He discovers early that language is a great equalizer. Thanks to his mother, English was the first language he learned. He picked up several others as a child he saw the ways his mother used language to “cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”

This was not the only important lesson from his mother. She instilled in him the importance of an education even if it took years for him to appreciate its value.

Religion, poverty and domestic violence also are addressed in Noah’s memoir. His mother was religious, to the extreme. His attempts to avoid going to church, which would be an all-day activity on Sundays, were thwarted by his mother’s deep faith.

Noah doesn’t sugarcoat his past, neither as the biracial son born out of wedlock, nor some poor decisions made in an effort to overcome economic injustice. His mother always has his back and her faith in God never wavers.

Trevor Noah: Born a Crime
Stories from a South African Childhood
Four Bookmarks
Speigel & Grau, 2016
304 pages