Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Rugged Relationships   Leave a comment

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The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney has been on my nightstand for years; I’ve lost track of how many. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner.

The author evokes the loneliness and bitter cold of Canada’s Northern Territory in the late 1860s. Alternating between the first person voice of Mrs. Ross and that of an omniscient narrator, the scene is set to unravel the mystery behind the brutal murder of a French trapper found in his cabin. Mrs. Ross is the first to discover the body and the first to wonder about the absence of her teenage son, Francis.

The small settlement, rich with gossip, lacks law enforcement, which results in the arrival of Hudson’s Bay Company representatives to investigate. An assortment of characters, from refined gentry to trappers and Indians, among others, figure into the story.

Family histories (and secrets), personal backgrounds, Native American relations with settlers, the stark landscape and unconditional love are given equal weight throughout the narrative. Although Mrs. Ross is the character with whom the reader becomes most familiar, her first name is never revealed. She does not believe Francis is capable of murder, and she has little faith that those searching for him will give him the benefit of innocent until proven guilty.

Thus, she sets out on her own search with the help of William Parker, a half-breed previously held custody on suspicion of his role in the murder.
Doubt and faith vie as the prominent sentiments in this fast-paced whodunit adventure.

The Tenderness of the Wolves
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2006
371 pages (plus summary and Discussion Points)

Jacques Pepin’s Many Kitchens   Leave a comment

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Jacques Pepin practically grew up in kitchens, which he chronicles in The Apprentice – a memoir with recipes. Born in southern France, he was a child during World War II when the scarcity of food was at its height. He learned to scavenge and worked on a farm before his mother opened a village restaurant when the war ended. This led to several apprenticeships, essentially trial and error experiences, before moving to Paris as a young adult.

Pepin’s writing voice is strong and vivid; the only thing missing is his French accent. His narrative reveals his work ethic, determination and a sense of fun. He goes from a lowly kitchen boy whose first assignment was nothing more than a prank to becoming the personal chef of President Charles de Gaulle – all before making a name for himself in the United States.

His move the New York City was both an adventure (meant to last a year or two at the most) and a leap of faith. Pepin spoke no English. Still, he becomes friends with fellow foodies – long before the term was conceived. Accounts of his friendships with Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and James Beard, among others, are peppered throughout like perfect seasonings to enhance but not overwhelm. Descriptions of meals add further appeal.

It’s fascinating to see his career evolve from cooking to teaching cooking techniques (and more) to authoring cookbooks and hosting television programs. Pepin shares his emotions, his appreciation of well-prepared food and the value he places on family and friends.

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen
A Memoir with Recipes
Four Bookmarks
A Rux Martin Book, 2003
318 pages with index

Mom is the Best Private Investigator   Leave a comment

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Celine by Peter Heller is a love letter to a lively, clever, socially privileged, yet intuitively aware, woman who happens to be a private investigator. The title character warrants all the admiration and awe the author infuses in this two-in-one mystery – both of which are equally engrossing.

Celine Watkins, 68 years old, appreciates the finer things in life, but what she most enjoys is her avocation of tracking down missing persons. After receiving a call from a young woman wanting to learn more about how her father went missing 20 years ago, Celine can’t resist the challenge.

Her sidekick is her life partner, Pete, an intelligent, reticent and supportive man. He and Celine leave the comfort of their upscale Brooklyn apartment for Wyoming, the last known whereabouts of the man in question.

Meanwhile, Celine’s adult son, Hank, wonders about the secret his mother has kept hidden for decades. This provides the narrative of Celine’s past: her childhood growing up with her two sisters in an aristocratic family where private schools, sailing lessons and speaking French were nothing out of the ordinary.

The alternating chapters build tension as Hank recounts his efforts to learn about the child his mother gave up for adoption and Celine pursues a thin string of clues while being followed in her investigation.

Heller blends humor with meaningful relationships among the different characters. At times Celine seems too good to be true, Mostly, she’s comes across as the strong, fun, determined and smart woman every girl should aspire to be.

Celine
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Alfred A, Knopf, 2017
334 pages

Love, Ghosts and Family   Leave a comment

Hardcover Sing, Unburied, Sing Book

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is a terse novel involving ghosts, survival, and, at its core, familial bonds. All aspects are told from the perspectives of 13-year-old Jojo; his drug-addicted, negligent mother, Leonie; and Richie, the spirit of a young boy imprisoned years ago for stealing food. The three voices are distinct even as their experiences merge.

Jojo lives with his younger sister and grandparents on a rundown farm near the Mississippi delta. His grandmother lies dying, while Riv, his grandfather, tries to maintain an even keel for his grandchildren. Although, Leonie’s inconsistent presence in their lives isn’t appreciated by anyone, she insists on taking the children on a road trip to the state penitentiary where their father is soon to be released.

Richie’s connection is to Riv who did his best to protect the boy when they were imprisoned at the same time years ago. Jojo, the only one who sees Richie, knows part of his story but Riv has never told him the ending. Since it works to have one ghost, why not another? Leonie’s dead brother, shot down in his youth, makes his presence known only to her.

The phantasms are neither spooky, nor superfluous. Their presence propels the narrative focused on the family ties that bind and those that never do. Jojo is an insightful, caring character much older than age. His closeness to Riv compensates for much that’s missing in his life, but Ward ensures the reader never overlooks the loss they shoulder.

Sing, Unburied, Sing
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2017
289 pages

Latina Connections   Leave a comment

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The collection of short stories comprising Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine are lush in their details. The related narratives focus on Latina characters set mostly in Colorado, largely in Denver. Family traditions, gentrification, addiction, abuse and hope figure in most of the stories.

The author creates a vibrant, albeit struggling, community. It comes as no surprise that a character’s name surfaces more than once. An aunt casually mentioned in one story is the focus of another.

The title is one of 11 tales and among the most poignant. Sabrina and Corina are cousins who were close as children but, as they got older, grew apart. On the surface there are easy answers such as Sabrina’s beauty, an absent father or access to drugs. Yet, it’s more complicated as Corina reflects on the relationship with her cousin through the years and the choices each made – or was made for them.

“Julian Plaza” is another stand-out. A mother diagnosed with cancer is sent to live in a private home while her two young daughters and their father attempt to continue their usual routines. The father is a custodian at a senior care center, Julian Plaza. Cora, the older sister, knows her father sells goods stolen from people who die at the center to pay for their mother’s care. What’s most striking about this story is the optimism that builds like a roller coaster when their girls attempt to bring their mom home. Of course, there’s always a downside to those rides.

Sabrina & Corina
Four Bookmarks
One World. 2019
212 pages

Not Made in the Shade   1 comment

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While unsettling, The Overstory by Richard Powers has some redeeming qualities; however, not enough to make it to a list of what best to read during a pandemic.

The novel is divided into four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. Yes, it’s about trees – all trees and a variety of people who try to save, understand and replicate them in a world that’s generally superficially appreciative.

The best parts are those about the nine main characters and descriptions of specific tree species. The character development is powerful; each person’s story is unique and could stand alone. Yet, it’s predictable that at some point they will intersect – some more intensely than others.

Besides the characters, it is interesting to learn about different trees and their role in our world besides providing shade, bearing fruit or as source material for everyday products. The narrative spans time beginning with immigrants in the Iowa plains to the Redwood forests of the west coast. Relationships form, most of which are unhealthy, and are the source of many of the novel’s disturbing aspects despite being able to see what forests add to their lives.

The result for several is eco-terrorism. A disparate group form to protest logging in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, it’s fascinating to read about efforts to protect an ancient Redwood or how a misunderstood scientist is validated. Yet, there’s too much foreshadowing to know that eventually things won’t end well for anyone.

Ironically, the physical element of this tome is in debt to trees.

The Overstory
Three Bookmarks
W.W. Norton & Co., 2018
502 pages

What’s in a Name or Two or Seven?   Leave a comment

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, subtitled Escape from North Korea, illustrates the author’s determination, grit and luck in her search for a new life. The title comes from the different names the author was given throughout her life, some to appease family members others to ensure her safety.

What began as a lark, just before her 18th birthday, Lee – then known as Min-young – crossed the river from her home in North Korea into China. Such an exercise, if apprehended, was punishable by imprisonment or death.

Initially, the narrative focuses on the author’s early family life: how her parents met, relatives, living conditions and more. Thanks to her father’s job with the government and her mother’s ability to bribe officials, the family fared well. Yet, this is the least interesting part of the book. It isn’t until Min-young faces a new life that the story becomes more engaging.

Changing her name to reflect a connection to China, she must learn a new language, always be on the alert for those who would turn her into the authorities and, generally, protect herself. Eventually, she makes her way to Shanghai, where she spends several years until concocting a plan to seek asylum in South Korea. This is not a decision she makes lightly. After all, her childhood included indoctrination citing that part of Korea as corrupt and barbaric.

Lee’s journey covers more than crossing borders. She endures emotional turmoil, guilt for leaving her family and fear of repercussions if caught.

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
William Collins, 2015
304 pages (including index)

Little Fires Everywhere: Read the Book First   Leave a comment

*This review was written in 2018. I thought I’d posted it, but turns out it’d been languishing in my Documents folder all this time. At least I remembered I’d read the book before watching the first episode on Hulu….

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The way families communicate with each other and the rest of the world is at the heart of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This novel falls into the can’t-put-it-down category. The characters are haunting in their embodiment of what they believe is right and wrong. When those lines are blurred, they become even more real – like people we know, or like the people we are.

Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl arrive in the upscale, planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. They rent an apartment owned by Elena Richardson, the mother four high school-aged children. Elena, who’s mostly referred to by the author as Mrs. Richardson, has lived her life as if following a recipe: step-by-step never considering substitutions or variations. Mia is an artist. She and Pearl move from place to place with the regularity of seasons. Mia promises Pearl this time, they’ll settle down.

That the families become intertwined is no surprise. The narrative opens with the Richardson’s manor-like home burning to the ground. Like bookends, this is where things wrap up.

Pearl and Moody Richardson become best friends. These are like-minded, intelligent kids who don’t quite fit in with the popular crowd like Moody’s older brother and sister. There’s also his troubled sister, Izzy, adding to the dynamics.

Little Fires Everywhere
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2017
338 pages

Seeking Asylum   Leave a comment

This may not be a popular stance to take, but American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins doesn’t deserve all the negative hype surrounding its publication. Primarily, she’s accused of misappropriating the migrant stories of those from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras because she isn’t Latina.

Not all stories about the Holocaust are written by those with a direct or indirect connection. That’s the beauty of imagination: it shouldn’t have limits.

Granted, Cummins’ novel isn’t perfect due to predictability, extraneous characters and the perceived need to translate Spanish words and phrases. Nonetheless, it’s a riveting story that’s difficult to put down and stop thinking about.

In her author’s notes/acknowledgements, Cummins describes the extent of her research, which is impressive. The narrative’s power lies in the truth of the ordeal her characters endure seeking a better life in el norte.

Sixteen members of Lydia’s family are killed by a cartel at her niece’s quiceanera. Lydia and her eight-year-old son are the sole survivors and know they need to run or face a similar end. The story’s rapid pace rarely slows down as mother and son attempt to elude the cartel first by bus to Mexico City where they discover it’s impossible for them to board a plane, then by train but not as comfortable passengers. Instead, they join other migrants trying to reach the United States and risk their lives by riding atop the railroad cars.

Their journey is fraught with obvious danger, surprise friendships, palpable fear, and self-discovery. It’s worth reading.

American Dirt
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Flatiron Books, 2020
383 pages

Before Bookmobiles   Leave a comment

 The Giver of Stars is a primer for women’s rights and a celebration of librarians. Set in Depression era in the rugged mountains of rural Kentucky, Jojo Moyes creates a colorful portrait of a group of five women who come to be known as the Packhorse Librarians. Moyes takes a page from history when Eleanor Roosevelt championed the WPA’s (Work Progress Administration) efforts to distribute books in remote areas of Appalachia.

Alice Van Cleave is newly married and far from her family home in England. She has difficulty fitting in in the small, rural town where her husband and father-in-law own a nearby mining operation. An appeal for women to help distribute books leads Alice to become an unlikely participant. She’s mentored by Margery, a no-nonsense, independent woman. Three others join the pair.

The novel is as much about the strength of women as the role of the librarians who not only deliver reading material but offer companionship, comfort and news from town. As Alice’s friendship with Margery and the other librarians grows, she realizes her marriage is slowly disintegrating. Her father-in-law is a bully, and Alice’s husband is uninterested in pursuing a physical relationship with her.

The relationships among the librarians with their reading community evolve from mistrust to dependence. The descriptions of the rugged landscape are beautiful and harrowing.

The power of friendship and sharing the joy books offer are richly detailed. The precursor to bookmobiles, the packhorse librarians brought new worlds and ideas to areas previously overlooked.

The Giver of Stars
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Pamela Dorman Books
390 pages