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Best of Friends   Leave a comment

The Friend

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez comes across as a letter to an intimate, erudite companion and also a series of journal entries about grief. Yet, it’s a story, in fact a novel, a work of fiction.

The nameless female narrator mourns the death of a dear friend, a relatively successful (male) writer, who has committed suicide. He, too, is unnamed, as are many of the characters, who are mostly peripheral, such as Wife One, Wife Three and Grumpy Vet. Some of the narrator’s graduate students are identified as someone “I’ll call …,” but only the super of her New York City apartment and a Great Dane are ascribed monikers.

Reluctantly, she takes the deceased man’s dog, Apollo, since no one else wants him; he’s old and massive. Like her, the dog also grieves. Apollo’s presence brings changes and not just to her lifestyle — despite her small apartment in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Previously, she’d only had cats. This is no immediate transformation. She recognizes he is a tie to her friend and she is not alone in her sorrow.

Nunez’s novel is also about writing. The narrator is a college English teacher. She cites writer after writer on death, grief, dogs, teaching, love and writing. Just as the woman recounts her memories of her close bond with the writer, her connection with Apollo transforms. She no longer sees him as a burden, so the question remains who is the friend: the dead writer, the narrator or the dog?

The Friend
Almost four bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
212 pages

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Sculpting a Life From Wax   Leave a comment

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Period novels usually aren’t my thing. It could be the often flowery language, the popular use of first person narrative, the topic, the je ne sais pas. Little by Edward Carey, while guilty of the above, including the French, is captivating. The story, based on the early life of Madame Tussaud known for her wax sculptures of celebrities, is rich with humor, pathos, historical references and lively characters.

Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Marie, as she was generally called until her diminutive size warranted the nickname “Little,” recounts her family background. She literally begins with her birth. Interspersed among the details of her life are drawings. The first identified as “Drawn by herself. In graphite, charcoal, and black chalk. (This being a likeness of her pencil.)” It’s difficult not to smile, although not all of the subsequent illustrations are humorous.

As a child, her life circumstances dramatically change following the death of her parents when she’s relegated to becoming a servant. Yet, Little is witty, intelligent and has a sharp power of observation: Traits that serve her well as her creativity and talents expand.

Little learns the craft of waxwork from the odd Dr. Curtius, who at first sculpted body parts and organs out of wax. Initially, he treats her as a ward. When the pair moves to Paris from Switzerland, her station is reduced to kitchen maid.

Carey’s epic follows the French Revolution with Little’s indomitable spirit whose name bears no reflection on her inner strength and kindness.

Little
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
435 pages

The Price of Knowledge   Leave a comment

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Educated by Tara Westover is one of the most emotionally difficult books I’ve read, but I couldn’t put it down.

The memoir recounts Westover’s journey as the daughter of survivalists in rural Idaho. The government was never to be trusted, neither were doctors or teachers. She never attended school; to say her mother’s efforts at homeschooling fell short is, at best, an understatement. Although hospital care was necessary a few times, the family relied on her mother’s knowledge of herbs.

For much of her life, Westover never questioned her family’s lifestyle. She had no basis for comparison. This isn’t the only aspect making this a challenging book. It was the physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her brother, Shawn. Her parents offered no protection.

Yet, Westover teaches herself how to study and pass the ACT with a score high enough to get accepted into Brigham Young University. From there she studies at Cambridge and Harvard universities, eventually earning a doctorate degree in history from Cambridge.

This is a gritty, heart-breaking narrative and Westover’s self-realization comes with a high price: she must either renounce her education or her family. When she refuses to give in to her parents demands, she is disowned, shunned by her most of her family. Her father’s fervent interpretation of the Bible doesn’t include anything close to acceptance or unconditional love.

Westover’s education extends beyond books and lectures. Her story reflects how much she gained once out of her family’s shadow and what she lost.

Educated
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Random House, 2018
322 pages

As the Crows Fly   Leave a comment

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The Atomic Weight of Love begs the question: how heavy is love? Elizabeth J.Church’s novel has war as its bookends: World War II and Vietnam. The passage of time reflects changes in attitudes toward conflict and women.

Meridian Wallace is a brilliant, young student interested in pursuing not only a college education, but an advanced degree in ornithology. This is unusual in 1940s Chicago. While at university she meets and falls in love with professor Alden Whetstone, who is secretly involved with the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M. Although he can’t reveal his research, he convinces Meridian to postpone her studies, move across the country and marry him. There will be plenty of time later to pick up where she left off academically. Ha!

Alden’s commitment to his work and the slow disintegration of a loving relationship could seem a cliché. Yet, Meridian manages to flourish even when the attitudes of the day bear down on her. On her own, she continues to study birds without the benefit of academic resources, she makes a few friends despite being ostracized for not having a doctoral degree like most of the wives in her community. Although they are well-educated they do nothing with their education.

Meridian falls in love with a much younger man but maintains the façade of her marriage with Alden, who becomes increasingly narrow-minded and unlikable as the novel progresses.

The author is masterful in the transformation she ascribes to Meridian and the world around her.

The Atomic Weight of Love
Five Bookmarks
Algonquin Books, 2016
352 pages

Revelations of a Priest’s Daughter   Leave a comment

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There is something both intriguing and off-putting about the title of Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. Greg, her father was, indeed, a priest in the Catholic Church. This was possible, she writes because her father “snuck past” the rule prohibiting priests from marrying. The real loophole is that a married minister of another denomination can, apparently, seek dispensation from Rome to be ordained as a priest. Pope Benedict XVI approved the request. Father Greg didn’t have to annul his marriage, nor abandon his children. Although, in many ways, as evident in the family stories Lockwood shares, he did.

The author’s tone is humorous and irony is evident throughout. Yet, there is too much cleverness. Her dad’s faith is never depicted as having much depth. Perhaps it is her effort to reveal him as an ordinary, not a holy, man. Even in that regard, he is far from conventional. After all, he lounges around in his boxers and has an extensive (and expensive) guitar collection. In fact he purchases a rare guitar soon after telling his daughter there aren’t funds for her college education.

Despite the title, Lockwood doesn’t focus her attention entirely on her dad. Her mother, her sisters, nieces, nephews and her husband also have prominent places in the narrative. So does a seminarian, who isn’t married and likely does not have kids.

Lockwood is, in fact, a published, award-winning poet. The images and emotions she conveys are vivid, but her often self-mocking tone and airing family laundry quickly wear thin.

Priestdaddy
Three Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
333 pages

Family Mystery, Mysterious Family   Leave a comment

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I thought I had Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway figured out about halfway through. I was close, but close doesn’t count when murder and deceit are involved.

Ware masterfully creates a sympathetic main character in Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a 21-year-old plagued by debt and loneliness with no known relatives. That is, until a letter arrives naming her as a beneficiary in the will of someone identified as her grandmother. Hal knows this isn’t possible but schemes to learn more, even going so far as to concoct a plan to gain some portion of the will by misrepresenting herself. She makes her living as a tarot card reader who has learned how to tell people what they want to hear based on what they reveal about themselves. Hal is certain she can use the same approach with the Westaway family.

Of course, Hal is not the only one keeping secrets. Much of the fun lies in trying to determine the evil player among the deceased’s other living relatives. It’s clear Mrs. Westaway, the grandmother, was not a loving mother and her grown sons, Hal’s uncles, claim they want nothing to do with anything from her will. That is until it’s revealed that Hal is to inherit the bulk.

A short-tempered, intimidating housekeeper and methodically revealed truths add to Hal’s distress.

It’s hard to go wrong with vivid descriptions of the cold, wet landscape surrounding the dark, old mansion. Thus, Ware sets the scene for an engaging mystery.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Four Bookmarks
Scott Press, 2018
368 pages

The Rising/Setting Sun   Leave a comment

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gets off to a slow start in its account of Biafra’s struggle for independence from Nigeria in the 1960s. It gains momentum as the story evolves from more than a glimpse into African history into the lives of the characters experiencing the turmoil.

Sisters Olanna and Kainene are twins by birth only. Olanna is beautiful, warm and relinguishes her privileged lifestyle to live with Odenigbo, a university professor and strong supporter of the revolution against Nigeria. Kainene is distant, not as attractive and lives with Richard, a reserved Englishman. Ugwu is the young servant boy in Odenigbo’s house who becomes part of the family.

A host of other characters, with names hard to pronounce and keep straight, inhabit the narrative, but the above are the ones with whom the reader becomes attached. This is thanks to the author’s early descriptions of their lives before the conflict and how they are changed as a consequence of it.

Talk of a revolution becomes war and the efforts to establish Biafra as a free, independent nation push Olanna and Odenigbo deeper into the inconveniences and dangers of the conflict. Hunger, filth, death and despair surround them in their efforts to survive.

The past real-world events addressing race and class issues, ethnic histories and colonialism in Africa is haunting. As the novel progresses to its frenetic climax, I wanted a return to its earlier, meandering pace if only to spend more time with the characters.

Half of a Yellow Sun
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
433 pages