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Author Archive

Home and House Aren’t Synonymous   Leave a comment

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If Ann Patchett is the author, I know it’s a book I want to read. The Dutch House, her latest, was no exception and I feel rewarded for being a fan.

Danny and Maeve Conroy are siblings living in a massive estate in a Philadelphia suburb with their father, housekeeper and cook. Mrs. Conroy abandoned the family years ago, leaving Danny, who is much younger than his sister, with little to no memory of his mother. Maeve assumed the role of caretaker for her brother. Their emotionally distant father made his money as a real estate developer. When he begins to date and eventually remarries, everyone’s circumstances change.

The novel focuses on the influence of the house on Danny and Maeve’s lives as they go from its well-to-do residents to finding their own place in the world. In fact, the house is an obsession; through the years the pair visit it from a distance while parked on the street.

Patchett’s characters are interesting with quirks and personalities making them come alive in the reader’s mind. She provides their backstories, including one for the house with an unusual history, including how it got its name.

The close relationship between Danny and Maeve drives the narrative through five decades with The Dutch House metaphorically always in view. There’s a one-upon-a-time sense to the novel, complete with an evil stepmother. However, this is a sophisticated, touching look at the importance of a caring family, even if it’s just a family of two.

The Dutch House
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2019
337 pages

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Out for Blood   Leave a comment

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Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup reads like a mystery but is based on fact. John Carreyrou, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, provides a thorough look at Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes. Fraud and manipulation are the tools Holmes used to convince big name donors to invest in her startup that she boasted would radically change the way blood testing is done in the medical industry.

Holmes is portrayed as an attractive, brilliant Stanford University student who left school to pursue her vision of producing a compact, in-home blood testing device. In her early 20s she managed to create a company valued at more than $9 billion.

Suspense is created through Carreyrou’s extensive research and interviews indicating deceit, poor management and greed. His efforts to convey the truth are nearly thwarted multiple times by Holmes, Sunny Balwani (chief operating officer and Holmes’ boyfriend) and their attorneys. Further roadblocks include well-respected, leaders and business gurus who refused to consider Holmes as anything other than a medical-startup miracle worker. The board included, among others, former Secretary of State George Schultz and Gen. James Mattis, who later served as Secretary of Defense.

Despite the incredulity of many Theranos employees and a lawsuit by a vindictive former neighbor, Holmes was able to secure contracts with Walgreen’s and Safeway to place Theranos products in stores without producing a successful prototype.

Holmes acted on the theory that people believe what they want to believe. True, until they no longer can.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
339 pages (includes notes and index)

Friends and Guests   Leave a comment

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Rules For Visiting is much more than a guide for would-be guests (and hosts) to follow. Rather, Jessica Francis Kane’s novel is an introspective look at how one moves through life based on the influences family and friends have on that journey.

May Attaway is a 40-year-old, single gardener. She pays more attention to the flora than to most people and situations. She’s observant when it comes to nature, but hasn’t mastered the art of social niceties. She has a few friends, but no one with whom she is in regular contact. It doesn’t occur to her that Leo, her car mechanic and the owner of a local taco shop, could be more than an acquaintance. Nor has she considered a co-worker would be more than a colleague.

When given a bonus at work for four weeks off with pay, May deliberates how to spend the time and ultimately decides to visit the four people she considers friends. Each represents different phases of her life.

The visits are spaced throughout different seasons. Between the trips, May ponders the relationships with her deceased mother, other family members and neighbors. The author deftly reminds the reader of May’s true passion through the many references of plants (including their formal scientific names). She also includes drawings of trees by Edward Carey marking the five sections of the book.

It’s no surprise that May learns much about herself and the importance of friendship in travels, but the process is nonetheless refreshing.

Rules for Visiting
Four Bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2019
287 pages

Love and Espionage   Leave a comment

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American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson addresses a shopping list of timely topics: sexism, racism, politics and the meaning of family.

The story begins with a bang: the attempted murder of Marie Mitchell, an intelligence officer with the FBI. Marie’s story is told via a journal she writes to her young twin sons. She addresses them frequently, which reminds readers they’re privy to what a mother wants her children to know. As the novel progresses, the phrase in case anything happens could be added to most sentences.

Marie kills the would-be assassin who invades her Connecticut home, takes her kids and family dog to Martinique to hide in her estranged mother’s home. Marie’s narrative recounts her youth, including that she, her older sister and their father were left in New York City by their mother who returned to her island country.

Marie is intelligent and likeable, but her sister, Helene, has more personality as portrayed through Marie’s memories. The sisters are close. Helene decides she wants to be an FBI agent when she grows up; Marie follows suit after Helene mysteriously dies. However, because of gender and race, Marie’s given little opportunity for advancement.

Then, she’s approached to help undermine the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara.

Wilkinson takes the reader back to the 1960s, mid-1980s and early 1992 when the novel begins. At times fast-paced, at others more deliberate, Marie wonders about the role she’s assigned as she gets to know Sankara. Why she’s a target is the over-riding question.

American Spy
Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2018
292 pages

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

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