Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Life’s Mysteries   Leave a comment

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, a coming-of-age story, center, around three mysterious deaths.

Forty years after the fact, Frank Drum recounts the summer he was 13. His musically-gifted older sister is getting ready for Julliard. His kid brother, more often than not, is Frank’s shadow. His father is a minister and his mother resents not having the life she imagined.

It’s early 1960s, school’s out and attending services where his father preaches on Sundays is the only real routine Frank has. Otherwise, it’s a halcyon, small town existence. That is until a young boy is found dead on railroad tracks; Frank discovers a vagrant’s body near the river and another death strikes closer to home.

The author blends vivid imagery of summer’s joys with a family’s grief. Frank is no-nonsense kid who’s sometimes insightful and at other times naïve. He’s protective of his brother whose shyness stems from his self-conscious stuttering. Such characterization is one of the novel’s strengths. Besides the close relationship with his dad, Frank bonds with Gus, who served in the war with his dad. When Frank isn’t sure about sharing concerns with his dad, he turns to Gus.

It’s unusual for a novel to feature not just one but two positive male role models; although at times, Gus’s behavior does raise eyebrows. The females are secondary characters even though their talents and interests are well-defined, they’re peripheral in Frank’s world.

The  take-away, though, is the power of forgiveness and acceptance in the face of sorrow.

Ordinary Grace

Four Bookmarks

Atria Books 2013

307 pages

In search of beetles — bugs, not cars   Leave a comment

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Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce, is meant to be a charming book, but falls short.  It’s predictable and the characters are caricatures.

Margery Benson’s life is a sorrowful one. Her father commits suicide when she’s a young girl and most of her life is spent living with her depressed mother and dour aunts. Before his death, however, her father showed her a book about bugs, which created an interest in beetles, in particular.

As a middle-aged woman whose life is passing her by, she resolves to find the mythic golden beetle of New Caledonia. Before setting off on this venture, Margery decides an assistant is required. She opts for Enid Pretty, a woman she’s never met, whose correspondence suggests dyslexia, in favor of a Mr. Mundic with post-traumatic stress disorder (although that wasn’t identified following World War II).

Enid is the opposite of Margery in style, personality and intellect.  Enid, whose lively demeanor is off-putting to her employer, does help keep Margery on track. The two set off on their adventure and, unbeknownst to them, are followed by the rejected Mundic. Actually, it’s outright stalking. His inclusion in the plot does little to help move it forward.

In their travels, the women overcome numerous obstacles and forge a bond. Their search for the elusive beetle is secondary.  While their eventual friendship is unsurprising, it is, nonetheless – at times – endearing. Perhaps most enjoyable is the author’s inclusion of an “interview” with the characters at the end of the book.

Miss Benson’s Beetle

The Dial Press, 2020

353 pages (includes Reader’s Guide)

Three Bookmarks

Free-form Cooking   Leave a comment

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The New York Times Cooking No-Recipes Cookbook might sound like an oxymoron, but it promotes a fun approach to preparing food. Sam Sifton who founded the Times Cooking section offers non-recipes with the barest suggestions for ingredients and the loosest of instructions.

Yet, even with unembellished directions, Sifton’s creative ideas, humor and confidence inspire readers’ abilities to rise to the challenge. Not wanting to let him down, I tried several no-recipes with, what I consider, great success.

Main dishes, ranging from tacos to fish, pasta to  chowder are among the (non)recipes included. For example, the Curry Beef begins includes such vague guidelines as “Chop a bunch of garlic and ginger and onion into the finest sort of dice…” Who needs exacts amount, it’s all about taste. It’s clear if you’re not a fan of any of these three items, skip or reduce them. It’s that easy.

Or how about this for the Crispy Pork Sandwiches with Spicy Mayo and Scallions: “Get some pork belly if you can or some fatty pork chops if you can’t.” that’s precise, hah!

Among my favorites, though, is Pasta with Sausage and Parm. With orecchiette and you can probably guess the other ingredients, although you might not think about including sage. Sifton wraps up his directive for this with “ … grate a lot of parmesan over the top, and let me know how it goes.”

On the page featuring Terriyaki Salmon with Mixed Greens, Sifton writes, “Cooking’s not difficult. It just takes practice.”

The New York Times Cooking No Recipes Cookbook

Five Bookmarks

Ten Speed Press, 2021

256 pages

“You Must Remember This …”   Leave a comment

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Remember by Lisa Genova is about all those little, and sometimes big, things we often can’t recall – and why.

She is the bestselling author of Still Alice, an account of a woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Genova is a neuroscientist whose grandmother was the novel’s inspiration.

In Remember, Genova has written an engaging nonfiction work about memory lapses and triggers for recall that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. She uses personal experience and humor to describe easily-relatable experiences.

The contents are divided into three sections: How We Remember; Why We Forget; and Improve or Impair. With few exceptions, she notes, most people do not have the capability to remember everything; she also gives an example of a man unable to maintain any memories. Most of us fall in the middle.

Stress, sleep deprivation, and emotions are among the contributors to faulty recollections. Apparently, there is also a tendency to embellish or discard elements either consciously or not.

Tip of the Tongue (TOT) situations are addressed. We might be able to remember details related to the main point (such as a movie title). Such details are often distractions keeping us from finding exactly what we’re seeking (an actor’s name).

When describing the book’s premise to a friend, I actually forgot some of the points I found most fascinating. One thing Genova does offer is reassurance that not all forgetfulness is an indication of Alzheimer’s. Yes, age does lead to a decrease in recall, but only because life creates a lot of memories.

Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Harmony Books, 2021

256 pages, including suggested readings

An Appetite for More Than Murder   Leave a comment

Bruno, Chief of Police

Author Martin Walker introduces readers to Bruno in the first of the Chief of Police series. The title character, whose formal name is Benoit Courreges, is a former soldier who’s drawn to the peaceful existence surrounding the small village of St. Denis in Southern France. This doesn’t mean his life is boring.

The brutal murder of an elderly North African, a veteran who fought with the French army, draws national attention. The novel addresses racism, victims of war, Nazis and more.

 Although Bruno is not the point man in a murder investigation he contributes a lot when it comes to solving the case.  Initially, two young people, including the son of the town doctor, are arrested as suspects. Bruno is certain their only crime involves drugs.

While working behind the scenes with the national police, Bruno enjoys his pastoral lifestyle living in a restored cottage in the country with his hunting dog, playing tennis and helping the locals stay one step ahead of the EU inspectors. He’s respected, intelligent and knows good wine when it crosses his lips.

Walker’s descriptions of the landscape, townspeople, French food and wine are enticing on their own. The murder investigation is almost secondary.  Three women attract his attention, which creates another mystery wondering which one will ultimately win his affections.

 The narrative is sweet, at times humorous and engaging without being saccharine. Bruno is a likeable, credible character full of common sense and a sharp mind. Identifying the murderer was logical without being predictable.

Bruno: Chief of Police

Four Bookmarks

Vintage Books, 2008

273 pages

A Long, Unseen Existence   Leave a comment

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In a small French village in 1714, on the brink of being forced into marriage, Addie LaRue makes a pact with the devil: to live her life without limits with the caveat that she determines when she’ll finally relinquish her soul. The result is a story spanning centuries, with historic events referred to only in passing.

Instead, V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue highlights Addie’s evolution from a young woman alone who must fend for herself to her realization that no one remembers her from day to day, often hour to hour. Thus, she steals not only to survive, but to thrive – even if she isn’t particularly happy. She never ages, yet she’s lived 400 hundred.

Luc, aka Lucifer, checks in with Addie from time to time to see if she’s ready to finally surrender to him. She dreads these meetings; yet at times they’re also what save her (long) life since he’s the one who transports her from place to another.

Fast forward to New York City 2014 when she meets Henry, a bookseller, who remembers Addie the next day, the day after and many days to come. Thus begins a relationship that endures beyond the one-night stands she’d previously experienced.

Yet, there’s a twist. Henry’s story begins in 2013. (I’ll leave it at that rather than include any spoilers.)

Surprisingly, the narrative isn’t far- fetched. Rather, it’s an engaging love story, a story of regrets, loss and an acknowledgement of what it means to be alive.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

Tom Doherty Associates Books, 2020

444 pages

Four and a-half Bookmarks

Unlearned Lessons from the Past   Leave a comment

Although I’ve only read a few of Kristen Hannah novels, it’s clear she does her homework. This is true whether the novel’s setting is France during World War II, Leningrad or the Pacific Northwest; her writing evokes a strong sense of time and place.  The Four Winds, set in the 1930s Dust Bowl era, is no exception. Hannah’s work also features strong, independent women; here Elsa Wolcott follows the pattern.

At 25 Elsa is considered past her prime as a marriage candidate. When she meets Rafe Martinelli, seven years her junior, her life changes.  With no intention of a marrying Elsa, Rafe has no choice when she becomes pregnant.

By the 1930s, Elsa has settled in on the Martinelli farm, which in Northern Texas  does not escape the devastation of the drought and dust storms that wreaked havoc across the Great Plains. Rafe abandons Elsa, their two children and his parents. Eventually, Elsa makes the trek to California, where word has it life is better.

Hannah’s vivid descriptions of the poverty, prejudice and injustices faced by the flood of migrants could easily, and unfortunately, be applied today. Elsa and her children aren’t immune to the incivilities, but the family’s relationships grow stronger in its struggle to find a better life.

The weakest element of the narrative is the insertion of efforts by union organizer Jack Valen. He comes across as the hero the family, and all farm workers, need. Yet, in some ways this negates Elsa’s intelligence and inner strength.

The Four Winds

Four Bookmarks

St. Martin’s Press, 2021

454 pages

Getting Past Racism   Leave a comment

Book Review: 'The Sum of Us,' by Heather McGhee - The New York Times

Heather McGhee is an economist and social policy advocate. As former president of Demos, a think tank, she helped draft legislation, was a regular on news programs, has a law degree and chairs the board of Color of Change, an online racial justice organization. To say she was the right person to write The Sum of Us is an understatement.

McGhee’s premise is racism doesn’t only impact people of color, but also affects (financially and emotionally) whites. She traveled across the country interviewing people who have lost their homes, opportunities for better jobs, health care and been denied better education. Not everyone she interviewed was Black.

The issues are rooted in politics, greed and perception. She writes of a once-booming mill town in Maine, where Somali and other African nation immigrants now live. Local politicians claim their arrival accounts for lost jobs; yet, this occurred long before. Rather, they contribute to the economy and culture of the community. Through their experiences, McGhee tells of individuals of different races reaching out to one another and benefitting from the effort.

The chapters address a range of topics: Racism Drained the Pool; The Same Sky and The Solidarity Dividend, among others. The latter is an example of one of the many beauties of this work; McGhee not only identifies the issues; she offers solutions. If only people were willing to apply them. Her strong belief is based on people working together rather than at odds. Of course, she acknowledges this can’t/won’t happen overnight.

The Sum of Us: What Racism costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

One World, 2021

415 pages (includes Notes and Index)

Bound by Generations   Leave a comment

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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia is a novel I wanted to fall in love with. Unfortunately, despite it having so many elements I’m drawn to, that didn’t happen.

With the exception of a Mexican immigrant and her young daughter, Garcia’s debut work focuses on the women in a Cuban family, several generations removed. Immigration, abuse, mother/daughter relationships, addiction, miscommunication and loss are brought together through glimpses into each woman’s life. The result is a disjointed narrative.

Loss is the most dominant thread, beginning with Maria Isabel in a cigar-rolling company in rural Cuba in 1866. As the only female roller, hers was the most compelling story. To keep the workers engage, a man read either from a novel or newspaper until war made it impossible to continue.

The next chapter is a leap to Miami 2014, where Jeanette, Maria Isabel’s great-great granddaughter is a grown woman and substance abuser. She’s a much less engaging character; yes she makes poor choices, but more is needed than illustrations of her bad decisions. Although she briefly helps the young daughter of the Mexican neighbor who’s apprehended by ICE, there’s little else appealing about her.

The characters need to be fully developed. It’s as if they’re faded photos without any nuance.  While this is a work of fiction, the experiences the women endure are important because, unfortunately, they’re not unique.  The impact would be greater if, instead of multiple situations, more details were limited to only a few.

Of Women and Salt

Two-and-a-half bookmarks

Flatiron Books, 2021

207 pages

Art in History   2 comments

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The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli has four narrators: two from the Renaissance and two associated with World War II. The result is a gripping story about the importance of art and its redemptive qualities — both as masterpieces are created and later rescued.

Edith is a German art restorer for a museum in Munich at the outbreak of the war. She’s ordered to catalog the artwork confiscated in Poland by the Nazis. Most of the pieces are destined for a museum Hitler plans to build, but high ranking officers keep some for their own private collections. This includes a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The painting is the link to the Renaissance. Cecilia Gallerani recounts her life as the mistress of the lord of Milan in the late 1400s; DaVinci, the other narrator in this time period, is commissioned to paint her portrait.

In 1944-45, the war is nearing its end and there’s work to be done. Dominic, an Army GI, is part of a squad charged with guarding a small group of the Monuments Men, the allied troops trying to locate the hidden, stolen art.

The connections among the four narrators works well. Each chapter/speaker is clearly identified, not only by name and year, but by distinctions in voice, descriptions of the era.

Morelli addresses several issues, including Edith’s sense of guilt, Dominic’s discovery of purpose, Cecilia’s realization she will never be the lady of the manor, and DaVinci’s efforts to establish himself not only as a painter, but an inventor.

The Night Portrait

Four Bookmarks

William Morrow, 2020

455 pages