Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Missed Opportunities   Leave a comment

46014983

I’ve read most of Anne Tyler’s novels. Certain things are constant: Baltimore is the setting, the characters are often melancholy and glimpses into everyday life are a sure bet. Redhead by the Side of the Road is no exception.

Micah Mortimer is set in his ways; he’s a self-described nerd,  a Tech Hermit, the name of his freelance computer repair business. He also works as a handyman in an apartment building and this earns him free rent. His basement apartment, however, doesn’t offer much charm.

Micah has his routines, some are daily such as running first thing every morning and wiping down the kitchen after meals; others involve specific chores. For example, Monday is floor mopping day. In spite of the mundane activities, there’s something inviting about Micah. While he takes his household/work chores seriously, he has also demonstrates a whimsical side to his personality while undertaking them: He speaks with a bad French accent.

Micah’s girlfriend, Cass, suspects she’s about to be evicted and the college-age son of an old college sweetheart appears on Micah’s doorstep. Each of these disruptions causes Micah to evaluate his life and acknowledge his loneliness.  He isn’t where he is because he lacks personality, but he lacks perception, at times.

This doesn’t rank among my most beloved Anne Tyler books, but neither is it my least favorite. However, as someone who needs to wear glasses, I am especially entertained by the title and what it refers to. I won’t spoil it.

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Three-and-a-half bookmarks

Alfred A. Knopf, 2020

178 pages

In Plain View   Leave a comment

51791252. sx318 sy475

The lies we tell ourselves, and others, to create new lives is the theme of The Vanishing HalfBrit Bennett’s novel addresses several timely issues including racism, sexism, privilege and gender identity. These are daunting points to undertake, but Bennett, without diminishing their importance, imbues the narrative with compassion and wonder.

At its heart, this is about twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who, as teenagers, ran away from home: a small, rural community of fair-skinned Blacks. The story tracks their lives as they eventually take separate paths, both figuratively and literally. Desiree returns home with Jude, her  young, very dark daughter in tow;  Stella passes herself as white, marries, moves to an exclusive area in Los Angeles and constantly worries she’ll be exposed.

The emphasis on Jude’s blackness drives the uncommon, perhaps unpopular, notion racism is only something whites project to nonwhites. Within her own, albeit pale, Black town, Jude’s been shunned since the day she arrived. Despite this, she doesn’t see herself as a victim and hers is the most engaging subplot within the novel thanks to those she interacts with most.

Although some stereotypes exist, most of Bennett’s characters are well-defined.  This goes beyond physical descriptions, but includes their joys, heartbreaks and deep emotions.

The settings change but the most important action occurs in the rural south and Los Angeles. Incorporating different locales makes it easy to see problems aren’t restricted to geographic regions. And, lies travel easily from one place to another.

The Vanishing Half

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Riverhead Books, 2020

343 pages

“Notes From a Young Black Chef”   1 comment

40645634. sx318

Kwame Onwuachi’s Notes From a Young Black Chef is considered a memoir (it says so right on the cover), but more accurately it could be seen as an engaging treatise on what it means to be a black man in America.  

The narrative begins just before his Washington, D.C., restaurant is set to launch. Onwuachi is catering an event commemorating the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s a long way from his roots in the Bronx.

The descriptive writing reveals Onwwauchi ‘s tenacious and, often, reckless personality. He didn’t always envision himself as a chef, although cooking was an important part of his life. Thanks largely to his mother who, for many years, ran a catering business from her home kitchen. While many of her dishes reflected a Southern influence, once he began working in kitchens Onwauchi knew he wanted a different focus. He wanted to be associated with upscale, fine dining.

Although he loved the traditional meals from his youth, he wanted to elevate them as a means of moving past stereotypes.

Onwauchi, a Culiniary Institute of America grad, encountered numerous obstacles (many of which he made himself) before becoming a chef. However, his passion for food along with a keen ability to hustle helped make this possible. Overcoming situations where expectations of him were low because of his race was another contributing factor to his success.

Onwauchi could have been another negative statistic, but determination and creativity helped make a dream reality.

Notes From a Young Black Chef

Four Bookmarks

Alfred A, Knopf, 2019

271 pages

Permission to Binge Read   1 comment

I like binge watching television shows, but I typically enjoy space/time between books when reading a series. Until recently, I’ve held to this; but all bets are off: it’s 2020.

Despite repeated rave reviews from friends, I’m a relative newcomer to Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries; I discovered them a few years ago.  Early on I realized I needed to pace myself because I knew I could easily fall under the spell of moving from one to the next with barely a breath in between.

I’ve read three in the past four weeks (with a brief break while waiting for a library copy to become available). When describing these mysteries I find myself using the word comforting, which probably sounds like an oxymoron given the context. Yet, the author imbues intelligence, sensitivity and humor into most of the recurring characters, especially Armand Gamache. With each subsequent work – Penny averages a book a year, sometimes more – the personalities are more distinct, more endearing.

Each mystery is finely crafted; the path to resolution is circuitous, but never superfluous.

Often, the setting is Three Pines, a village not far from Montreal. Initially, I wondered how such an isolated, idyllic and unpopulated locale could need the services of the national police so frequently. It’s no spoiler alert to simply note Three Pines is occasionally only a launching point.

I’m at the midpoint of Penny’s works and am wondering whether to charge ahead or slow down to extend the pleasure. It’s a quandary.  

     Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Another View of World History   Leave a comment

Review: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Meghan's ...

You‘d be forgiven for thinking A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters is massive with each section retelling what’s already been shared in the Bible, scientific journals and cultural studies. Instead, Julian Barnes evokes humor and pathos as he draws from those chronicles while creating a narrative about survival.

The half chapter, between 9 and 10, entitled “Parenthesis” is about love.

An unlikely narrator in the first chapter shares its experience as a stowaway aboard Noah’s ark. In a vastly differing account from what’s taught in Sunday schools, Noah is portrayed as unintelligent and a drunk. Although references to the stowaway occur in a few subsequent chapters, its role as narrator ends once the ark reaches shore much, much longer than the 40 days told in popular versions.

Ships, passengers and violent seas – well, in some cases, just violence at sea – set the scene throughout the narrative, as does a trial, space travel and contemporary searches for the ark. Each section (chapter) can stand alone, but it’s important to remember the book’s theme, which is what the title implies.

Just as some history books often get bogged down in too much detail, Barnes falls in line with the genre. For example, the chapter appropriately entitled “The Wars on Religion,” about the trial of woodworm accused of blasphemy, while initially amusing, gets old fast.

Even the final chapter, “The Dream,” which provides an idea of heaven is too long, especially since even the narrator grows tired of it.

A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Vintage International, 1989
307 pages

Expectations and Perceptions   Leave a comment

52381081. sx318 sy475

In Trust Exercise Susan Choi raises the question of perspective; everyone has their own version of a situation. Here it isn’t immediately clear whose is who’s.

David and Sarah are students at an elite performing arts high school; they have a summer romance between their freshman and sophomore years. They, their peers and Mr. Kingsley, the theatre instructor, do little to acknowledge the relationship once school resumes in the fall.

The novel’s three sections are all entitled “Trust Exercise.” This is clever since it not only relates to the classroom experiences designed by Mr. Kingsley to teach the students to depend on each other; it also admonishes the reader to have faith in the narrative.

The first section focuses on David and Sarah’s relationship with supporting roles provided by their classmates, teacher, parents and exchange students from England.

The second “Trust Exercise” re-introduces Karen, a character previously, albeit briefly, mentioned. The switch takes some adjustment since the storyline is now more hers than Sarah or David’s. It’s as if the roles have been switched from supporting player to star. Additionally, a switch from the omniscient narrator to Karen’s voice regularly occurs.

Asides to the reader create a theatrical ambiance, as if to remind of the ties to the performing arts. Drama, in all its forms –onstage and beyond the proscenium arch – is ever present. 

Choi has crafted believable characters in credible settings with the challenge of considering different points of view regarding relationships, commitment and loyalty.

Trust Exercise

Four bookmarks

Henry Holt and Co., 2019

257 pages

Looks, Lies and Life   Leave a comment

48616787

The Lying Life of Adults is Elena Ferrante’s new novel. Although it has similarities to her Neapolitan Quartet, notably the setting and a young female protagonist, it’s more introspective and a little less engaging.

Giovanna is a young teenager who overhears a conversation between her parents in which her father describes her as ugly. In fact, he says, she looks as bad as his estranged sister, Vittoria. Until this point, Giovanna has admired both her parents, felt secure in her family, and was completely unaware of any relatives, let alone her aunt.

The eavesdropping leads Giovanna to find Vittoria and discover not only a part of Naples she never knew, but also family secrets ultimately leading to a transformation of looking beyond the obvious. It’s not necessarily an engrossing narrative, but it is Ferrante. Adolescence is a difficult time; the author deftly illustrates this with the self-absorbed, manipulative youth and adults.

The author is at her best describing the class structure within Italy, in particular Naples. It’s easy to visualize how education plays a role in the lives of the residents of this southern Italian coastal city. References to dialect and coarse behavior further emphasize the line dividing social classes.

It is problematic Giovanna is not a particularly inspiring character. Yes, her independence does eventually surface, but her relationships with others are one-dimensional. Frankly, she’s a wimp. Granted, Vittoria is odd and her parents lose their bearings. Nonetheless, her efforts to find herself in their world of deceptions and accusations really should be more interesting.

The Lying Life of Adults

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Europa Editions, 2020

322 pages

More Than a Uniform   Leave a comment

758037. sx318

If you suspect The Women in Black is about nuns, you’re wrong. No worries, although the title would work for such a subject. Instead, these are saleswomen at Goode’s Department Store in Sydney, Australia, who wear black frocks.

Madeline St. John follows four, including Lisa a teenage temporary employee, who work in Ladies Cocktail and Model Gowns. Patty is in a childless, unhappy marriage; Fay is single and weary of the dating scene; Magda is a sophisticated Slovenian emigrant.

The writing is sparse, yet captivating. Each main character is vividly portrayed, as is Goode’s. With the holidays rapidly approaching, the store prepares for an onslaught of last minute shoppers.

Young Lisa has finished school and awaits the results of her final exams. She’s intelligent with dreams of being a poet and going to university – something her father adamantly opposes. Magda, who interacts little with Patty or Fay, takes Lisa under her wing.

When not at the store, St. John provides glimpses of each character’s home life. Only Magda is truly happy, which may be attributed to her appreciation and acknowledgment of what life in Australia offers her compared to what she left behind in her home country.

On the heels of the Christmas rush is the popular annual sale. Preparations for it, plans for how the women will spend New Year’s Eve and wondering about the results of Lisa’s exams, contribute to the anticipation the author creates. The result makes this a rapid-page-turner of a novel.

The Women in Black

Four Bookmarks

Scribner 1993

209 pages

When Timing is Everything — Even Reading   1 comment

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

I choose books based on reviews I’ve read, recommendations from friends or sometimes the title alone is enough to intrigue me. The latter and a review led me to Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars.

Unfortunately, there was no pull for me; I discovered this within the first 20 pages. The problem is that the background is the 1918 flu epidemic and the references to quarantines are simply too immediate — even more than a century later.

Donoghue’s novel is set in Dublin and its main character is Julia Power, a nurse in an obstetrics unit in a hospital decimated by the flu. By the way, World War II is still raging.

The Pull of the Stars

No rating

Little, Brown and Co., 2020

291 pages

Cooking, Camaraderie and Courtship   Leave a comment

44449. sx318

Give me a well-written book about food with recipes and I’m a happy reader. Cooking for Mr. Latte is Amanda Hesser’s account of how she met her husband, meals with family and friends and writing about food for The New York Times.

I’m no fan of the cover, but this is enjoyable. Hesser’s sense of humor is self-deprecating, but insightful. Her food knowledge is impressive and many of the recipes included at the end of the chapters are ones I want to try. Although some are more daunting than I’m willing to venture, most are enticing without being too challenging.

Mr. Latte is the name the author ascribes to her now husband. Their ideas about food are not at all on the same plate when they first meet. As the relationship grows, each makes concessions as their palates and dining encounters expand.

Hesser describes meals – those in restaurants and those at home – along with the role they have in creating and maintaining close friendships.

The courtship between the author and Mr. Latte is the main thread of the narrative with each chapter a vignette of her life as a writer, single female and foodie in New York City. Visits to her grandmother on the Chesapeake Bay illustrate the importance of family and the comfort of family meals. Her meeting with her future in-laws includes the combination of excitement and angst many can connect with. This isn’t quite a diary, but close. These aren’t private thoughts Hesser shares, but relatable experiences.

Cooking for Mr. Latte
Four Bookmarks
W.W. Norton & Co., 2003
336 pages (includes index)