Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

AIDS, Friendship and Acceptance   Leave a comment

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The Great Believers begins in 1985 Chicago when a group of friends, who’ve been excluded from a funeral, gather to celebrate Nico’s life. He died of AIDS. It’s early days of the epidemic and their friend’s death foretells of what lies ahead for many.

Yale Tishman is among the group, as is Fiona, younger sister of the deceased. Nico’s parents kicked him out of the family home years ago, but Fiona stayed in contact providing him food, money and support as best she could. Consequently, she grew up around Nico’s circle of friends, including Yale.

Time is an element of Rebecca Makkai’s novel which alternates between Chicago 1985/86 and Paris 2015. The earlier period focuses on Yale. He’s a development director for an art gallery, is in a monogamous relationship and comes across as an intelligent, sensitive young man. Through Fiona he’s put in touch with her aunt with an art collection from the 1920s Yale tries to secure for his gallery.

The latter time frame follows Fiona to Paris in her attempt to locate her estranged daughter and granddaughter. The younger Fiona is more interesting than the older version. She took care of Nico, and many of his friends, as they contracted AIDS. She apparently exhausted her caretaking abilities when it came to her immediate family.

Still, the beauty of the novel lies in the power of friendship and acceptance. Yale, and others, faced threats and, initially, medical care for AIDS patients was scattered, at best.

The Great Believers

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2018

421 pages

Opening Up to the Unknowns   Leave a comment

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Reading The Power of Strangers made me think about how I interact with people I don’t know, which I suspect is among author Joe Keohane’s  goals. He presents  a lot to consider in an entertaining, applicable, albeit often research-heavy, manner.

Through interviews with psychologists, anthropologists,  and average citizens , among others, Keohane identifies the good feelings resulting from an exchange, no matter how brief, with those with whom we share our world. Engaging in such interactions isn’t all about personality type. Innate fears of rejection and lack of trust often inhibit extending ourselves.

Examples of other cultures where the importance of an initial greeting determines the safety of those involved are referenced. Details are shared about individuals in public spaces who encourage strangers to share their stories or simply talk about whatever is on their minds.

The work is split into three sections: “What Happens When we Talk to Strangers;” “Why Don’t We Talk to Strangers;” and “How to Talk to Strangers.”

Admittedly, sometimes I don’t want to talk to someone I don’t know: for example, when on a plane in the middle of a good book. I always acknowledge people and try to establish eye contact. And, when ignored, I am disgruntled. I live in a place where I encounter fellow hikers on beautiful trails. There is usually some exchange of trail talk. Keohane likely would consider this a start, but for a more meaningful connection he offers a lot of interesting ideas worth reading about.

The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

328 pages (includes index)

Battling Through Life’s Struggles   Leave a comment

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Fight Night by Miriam Toews may sound like a mob meet up, which is true if you consider nine-year-old Swiv, her mother Mooshie and grandmother Elvira to be a gang. They do, indeed, fight. Not each other, but the past and world around them.

Swiv is clever and funny, but she’s just a kid – still in single digits. She’s been suspended from school (for fighting), so Elvira creates an innovative educational curriculum. This includes subjects, among others, such as letter writing, life sciences and “Ancient History,” about Elvira’s childhood.

Swiv and her grandmother are close. They spend their days together in close proximity where Swiv is largely a caregiver to the older woman. Still, Elvira is wise and joyful. She has a love of life that endears her to everyone she meets, much to Swiv’s dismay.

Mooshie is in the trimester of her pregnancy. She’s an actress with a Toronto theatre troupe and is portrayed as a woman on the edge. Swiv’s father is absent, something Elvira eventually explains to Swiv. Among the writing assignments for Swiv is to pen a letter to him keeping him up to date on her life. Mooshie and Elvira are also tasked with writing letters: theirs to the unborn child.

Toews portrays the small family as determined and prepared to face their demons. The deaths of Swiv’s aunt and grandfather by suicide nearly paralyzed Mooshie emotionally.  This leaves Elvira to keep the family together, despite her failing health. Consequently, Swiv grows up far too fast.

Fight Night

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021

251 pages

Binge reading   Leave a comment

I finally did it: binged on three* Louise Penny novels back to back. There’s still another to read, but since it isn’t on my nightstand (per my New Year’s Books Resolution), it has to wait.

Most readers I know are fans of the Inspector Armand Gamache series. To those few who admit to me they aren’t, we can still be friends; although, I am disappointed.

Nonetheless, I’ll focus on All the Devils are Here, which allows me to also highlight what I enjoy so much about Penny’s work: the relatable characters, the descriptions (and significance) of settings, and, of course, the mystery to be solved. Unlike most of the previous novels, this one is set in Paris, with brief references to Three Pines, the small, tight-knit community in rural Quebec.  I was initially disappointed the usual cast of characters (residents of Three Pines) was relegated to barely-existent roles. Yet, Paris is, after all, a magical place, which comes to life through the author’s vivid imagery of people, sites and food – lots of food.

In addition to the mystery at hand, are several back stories: Armand’s relationship with his estranged son Daniel; the imminent birth of his granddaughter; and his memories of visiting the City of Lights.

Suspicions abound as Gamache works to discover who tried to kill his godfather. The inspector encounters corporate espionage, corrupt police and rumors involving the French Resistance. It’s an intriguing combination. This and the benevolent qualities of her main character are what Penny does best.

All the Devils are Here

Four Bookmarks

Minotaur Books, 2020

439 pages

*Kingdom of the Blind

A Better Man

All the Devils are Here

Food Joys   Leave a comment

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I’ve seen a lot of Stanley Tucci’s movies; of his many screen appearances, my two favorites are Big Night and the television series Searching for Italy. His memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food, reflects both.

Beginning with his childhood and Italian family background, he recalls school lunches, weeknight dinners and holiday get-togethers with equal enthusiasm and vivid descriptions. He also includes occasional recipes.

Tucci moves through the different phases of his life: his early acting days augmented by waiting tables, his relationship and love for his late wife, his success as an actor, remarrying, movie sets and how food is such an integral part of it all.

Humor, mixed with heartfelt emotion, a little snobbery and his enjoyment of a good stiff drink fill the pages. His writing voice is distinct. Its cadence evokes memories of the TV series wherein he visits different parts of Italy identifying the unique foods of each region.

The memoir is not without plenty of name dropping, something Tucci acknowledges. Yes, he’s acted with numerous well-known celebrities, but it’s the many shared meals themselves that breed envy – even if all of the food isn’t delicious … although most of it is.

Tucci isn’t just a dining connoisseur; he recounts his enjoyment of cooking, which includes planning, shopping, preparing and serving. Whether describing the catering on movie sets or meals with his children, parents and wife (or fellow actors and friends), Tucci clearly acknowledges an appreciation not only for good food, but the community it creates.

Taste: My Life Through Food

Four Bookmarks

Gallery Books, 2021

291 Pages

A Celebration and Lament   Leave a comment

Punctuation in Elizabeth’s Strout’s new novel, Oh William!, is important to note. There’s no comma after Oh and the exclamation mark is, indeed, a point of emphasis. Those who’ve read Strout’s previous works will be familiar with William’s ex-wife, Lucy Barton. If introduced here to Lucy for the first time, there’s enough about her past and how it factors into her relationship with William.

To say they’re cordial to one another is an understatement; though long divorced, they are friends, even confidantes, but certainly not lovers. They have two grown daughters, share holidays and are, simply, part of each other’s lives.

Each remarried years ago, although Lucy’s second husband is deceased and William’s third wife has recently left him.

Strout’s writing is terse, efficient and occasionally melancholy. Told from Lucy’s perspective, the narrative focuses on William and, significantly, his late mother. When William discovers a family secret he’s compelled to learn more. A road trip ensues and he asks Lucy to join him. She agrees.

Lucy notes early in the novel that William has always exuded confidence something that manifested itself in his position as a scientist and NYU professor. As a writer, Lucy is observant, attune to those around her.  Through her eyes, the reader witnesses William’s certainty begin to diminish, while her own grows stronger.

The title can be read as both a lament (even sans comma) and celebration; both are fitting. Oh William! is a testament to the power of friendship, especially as one ages. Hurray Lucy!

Oh William!

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

241 pages

Ageless Friendship   Leave a comment

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot: A Novel: Cronin, Marianne:  9780063017504: Amazon.com: Books

The 100 Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin is about the sustaining and enduring power of friendship. Lenni is the 17-year-old narrator hospitalized with “life-limiting” cancer –  usually referred to as terminal. She meets 83-year-old Margot and an immediate bond is formed. Between them is a 100-year-old life.

Lenni’s acerbic, insightful humor is beyond her age. This isn’t a criticism; it makes sense given her situation. She’s a no-nonsense teen who doesn’t get to live the life of a healthy teenager. She still manages to sling attitude, though. Yet, she makes the most of her situation: she’s curious, so she meets with the hospital chaplain; she creative, so she has the idea to collaborate with Margot to share their life stories through art. Each painting is associated with a particular and significant situation, which they reveal to each other. The result, besides bringing them closer, is a compelling narrative rich with life’s joys and sorrows.

Lenni’s parents never visit, which is eventually explained. Whether intentional or not, Lenni creates her own family within the hospital. Father Arthur, New Nurse , Paul the Porter, the Temp and Pippa the art teacher are those with whom she has meaningful relationships.

Cronin’s characters are vividly portrayed. The novel is both heartwarming and heart wrenching. After all, the word terminal is stated on page one. The friendship with Margot transcends age. Although Lenni will never have Margot’s experiences, she’s able to appreciate what life does offer, and everyone is enriched by knowing Lenni.

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot                                                                                Four+ Bookmarks                                                          HarperCollins, 2021                                                                            326 pages, plus Reading Group Guide and Author Interview                                                                         

A Life in the Kitchen   Leave a comment

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I enjoy reading books about chefs probably because I like food. I’ve never been to Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin, a three star Michelin rated New York City restaurant, but I have heard of him.

His memoir, 32 Yolks, recounts his childhood in southern France, his first encounters with fine dining and his journey to becoming a renowned chef. Unfortunately, the account lacks personality. It’s bland, More flavoring is needed in the form of humor and descriptions of food lack vibrancy.

As a child, and later young adult, Ripert was happiest when cooking was part of the scene, whether it was in his mother’s, grandmothers’ or a friend’s kitchen. His parents divorced when he was six and his father died soon afterward. In an effort to alleviate her son’s sadness, Ripert’s mother took him to a dinner at an exclusive restaurant. This led to a long-standing friendship with the chef/owner.

Ripert attended culinary school, which he explained, didn’t fully prepare him for what actually takes place in a restaurant kitchen. He had to learn that the hard way.

The title comes from one of his first kitchen duties: to break 32 eggs for a hollandaise sauce. An undertone of self-deprecation comes through in Ripert’s first professional kitchen experiences, yet it rings false. Hard knocks are a way of life, but his memories of working on the line are soft.

Still, learning about how people get to where they are today is of interest.

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line

Three Bookmarks

Random House, 2016

247 pages

Libraries and Adventures   Leave a comment

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Cloud Cuckoo Land may be the looniest book title I’ve heard of. Nonetheless, it’s Anthony Doerr’s most recent, aptly-named novel. This epic work traverses centuries and locales; it’s about five children, books and the importance of libraries in their lives and throughout time.

Anna is an orphan in Constantinople; Omeir is a village boy in the same era. Zeno and Seymour are from Idaho living in the 2000s; and Konstance lives on an interstellar ship. Some them converge, and they’re not the ones readers might expect.

Libraries could, collectively, be a sixth character. They serve as gathering places for four of the five to learn about their individual worlds. A Greek book ties everything together. It’s the namesake of this narrative and a story within the main story.

Each section expands on the ancient tale of Cloud Cuckoo Land wherein a man is turned into an ass. His efforts to regain his human self result in a far-fetched adventure with a potent moral.

At 600+pages, some might consider this to be a daunting undertaking. Yet, it’s worth reading every word. The characters age and not all for the better; the paths they pursue, often driven by information gleaned from their respective library visits or exposure to the Greek story, are ones easily imaginable despite the different settings.

Doerr has crafted a rich and vivid narrative through empathy, tension and curiosity. It’s a given the different eras and places will make sense. How it occurs is captivating.

Cloud Cuckoo Land

Five Bookmarks

Scribner, 2021

626 pages

Dying for an Invitation   Leave a comment

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Lucy Foley’s The Guest List is an easy-to-read mystery without having to worry about anything lurking behind closed doors. There’s plenty of tension but the short chapters and the focus on a handful of characters are balanced with the eery remote Irish island locale; all contribute to creating the scene for not only a whodunit, but to whom?

Mostly, the plot moves back forth between the day before and day of Jules and Will’s wedding;  at times it is more specific:  the morning of,  the night of, now  and the next day. The narrative is told from several perspectives: Jules; the bridesmaid; the best man; a plus one; and the wedding planner.

The first chapter, not ascribed to any particular character, sets the scene of a large, posh wedding reception with a powerful storm raging outside multiple tents. When the lights go out no one is overly concerned, but what evokes chills is a terrifying scream.

Foley doesn’t return to the source of the scream until more than 50 pages later. In the interim, the main characters are introduced – broadly at first before they become more real making it possible to develop attitudes and feelings toward each one.  What surfaces in the character developments are jealousies, insecurities and, not surprisingly, several motives for murder.

Interspersed among the characters’ back stories are descriptions of the wedding, the island and storm, and, most significantly, what interrupted the festivities.  This is perhaps the least engrossing element. Foley provides plenty of whys, which leaves the question of who‘s the victim since there so many possibilities.

The Guest List

Four Bookmarks

HarperCollins, 2020

313 Pages

Posted November 10, 2021 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews

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