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Archive for the ‘Alfred A. Knopf’ Tag

Family Ties   2 comments

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At first, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi seems more like a collection of short stories than a novel and that, along with the title, is part of its beauty.

Spanning more than 300 years, this is an epic tale of the evolution of a family. Each chapter focuses on a specific character and could be a stand-alone story. Fortunately,  a thread connects one to the other, even though there are some knots and loops along the way. These simply enhance the narrative. There is a chronology but not in the traditional sense.

In 18th century Ghana, Effia, the young beautiful daughter of a village chief is married to an Englishman, where she lives in a castle. She’s unaware that her half-sister, Esi, is imprisoned in the castle dungeon as a slave to be sold and sent to America.

The author traces, through the years, the lives of the sisters’ descendants  as they experience warfare among Ghanian tribes, plantation slavery, British colonization, the migration from Alabama to Harlem, and more.

Gyasi provides portraits of 14 distinct main characters and a supporting cast of dozens more. Each is nuanced through his or her experience, determination and environment. Almost equally important are the landscapes; the element of place shapes the individuals in ways that can’t be ignored. There are lush and harsh jungles, shorelines, cotton fields, inner-city Baltimore, Alabama coal mines and smoky jazz bars.

Survival and the strength of family ties resonate in every chapter as each character takes a turn in the spotlight.

Homegoing
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
305 pages

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Seeing What We Want to See   Leave a comment

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Don’t be fooled by the fact that Erika L. Sanchez’s novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, falls into the Young Adult category. Family relationships, immigration, education and mental health are among the issues Sanchez addresses. These are matters that should be of interest to everyone, regardless of age.

Julia Reyes, a bright and funny 15-year-old girl, lives with her family in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Her parents entered the U.S. illegally years before and work in menial jobs. Julia dreams of being a writer and going to college in New York City. Her older sister, Olga, considered the good and obedient daughter, has just died in a freak accident.

Julia and her parents express their grief differently, but none are able to reach out to the other for support. Julia has always been at odds with her mother while her father has grown more distant. Much to Julia’s annoyance, Olga was idolized by everyone around her – especially her mother. Yet, Julia discovers some questionable items in Olga’s bedroom leading her to suspect no one in her family truly knew her seemingly perfect sister.

The author incorporates humor and has crafted well-developed characters to move the narrative beyond the life of a poor inner city girl. Julia is aware of the limitations around her, but doesn’t want them to define her. As she struggles to learn more about Olga, she learns things about her parents and herself. Fortunately, Sanchez uses a light hand when conveying such heavy themes.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
344 pages

The Girl Who is That Girl   Leave a comment

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium Series #5)
David Lagercrantz is no Stieg Larsson, but at least Lisbeth Salander, the notorious bad girl who, ironically, stands for good and justice, has been given new life.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye is Lagercrantz’s second contribution to what started as Larsson’s Millennium Triology. This fifth novel resurrects most of the original characters, including Salander along with Mikael Blomkvist, Holger Palmgrem, chief inspector Jan Bublanski and several others.

Salander remains an intelligent, obstinate young woman. She’s physically and mentally strong. She is also intolerant of ignorance and injustice.

This most recent addition to the series finds Salander in prison where she manipulates a bad situation to her advantage. In the process, she comes to the aid of an inmate, a Bangladeshi woman, who is threatened by Benito, another prisoner who essentially runs the roost.

The narrative features two paths, one involving Islamic extremists and the other focusing on a sadistic study of twins. Salander traverses both. Consequently, there are plenty of near-death misses, brutal encounters and last-minute escapes. Thus, a strong ability to suspend disbelief is a requirement for getting through the book. The beatings the main character endures, for example, would defeat most mortals.

Salander feeds small pieces of information to Blomkvist to pursue, while she does the dirty work. He knows she’s onto something big but it takes him longer to digest. Still, the element of suspense is strong and once again it’s easy to cheer for Salander, even if her tactics are not always palatable.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye
Three-and-three-quarter Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
347 pages

A Different Mother and Son Reunion   Leave a comment

 

The NixSomebody get Nathan Hill an editor! The author of The Nix is creative, daring and has a good – no excellent – story to tell. The problem is that it’s about 250 pages too long, including an 11-page sentence. Really?!

Moving back an fourth between a tumultuous Chicago in 1968 just before the Democratic national convention and a calmer 2011, the novel ‘s focus is on the relationship between Samuel Andresen-Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye. It’s been decades since he last saw her. When Samuel was a child, Faye abandoned him and her husband.

Samuel teaches literature at a Chicago university. His heart isn’t in his work; his students are neither inspired, nor inspiring. After hours, on his faculty computer, he plays an immersive video game. He is also 10 years behind on a book that he’s been contracted to write. Samuel is a likeable guy and it’s painful to consider him a loser. But.

Hill is at his best in his descriptions of Samuel’s childhood, before his mother left. It’s vivid, engaging and explains so much about this character. Equally engrossing are the sections about Faye’s youth in a rural town in Iowa.

Less appealing are some of the other characters and situations, if only because the depth of their portrayal is extraneous. Take the sentence that is a chapter unto itself. It chronicles the symptom-by-symptom, reaction-by-reaction experience of a compulsive gamer as his body shuts down.

Ultimately, all the reader, like Samuel, wants is to understand why Faye left.

The Nix
Almost Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
620 pages

No Great After Taste   Leave a comment

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Sweetbitter is a combination love story and homage to restaurant life, particularly servers. It’s far from reverent and certainly doesn’t offer a warm-hearted view of the front and back of house scenes. It demonstrates that working in a restaurant is often a lifestyle and not just a job.

Told from 22-year-old Tess’s point of view, Stephanie Danler’s novel is unflinching when it comes to sex, drugs and ego trips. Tess arrives in New York City from the Midwest. With only limited diner experience, she lands a job as a back waiter in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. She’s unsure of herself, has no true motivation, but still simply seems ready to get on with her life, whatever it may be.

The novel’s four sections are broken down by seasons beginning with a sweltering summer. As each progresses I was increasingly disappointed. Summer and fall had my full attention as I expected Tess to develop interests and become more confident. By the winter and spring segments, I was disappointed. Yes, Tess makes some self-discoveries, but they’re minor in the scheme of things.

Part of the problem is that Danler never makes Tess’s obsessive fixation on Jake, the bartender, tangible or credible enough. His relationship with Simone, an older server who, inexplicably, fascinates Tess, is a mystery waiting to be solved; but it lacks tension. Instead, predictability takes control, which is far more bitter than anything sweet Danler has to offer.

Sweetbitter
(Barely) Three bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
352 pages

Children of the Holocaust   Leave a comment

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Just when it seems there can’t possibly be more to write about the horrors of the Holocaust, Jim Shepard in The Book of Aron reminds us why it is something we must never stop reading about – and, hopefully, learning from.

In Aron, the young narrator, Shepard has created a selfish, defiant, naïve and curious young boy. The German invasion of Poland and the subsequent establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto are described through Aron’s experience. He and his friends turn to smuggling. They couch their activities as efforts to help their families; however, the thrill of seeing not only what they can unearth, but also what they can get away with are, initially, stronger forces.

Shepard’s descriptions of the harsh living conditions, the threat of being caught by the authorities for dealing in contraband and the pain induced by being cold and hungry are painfully vivid. At first Aron treats the situation as little more than an inconvenience and the smuggling as something to keep him and his cohorts occupied.

As Aron slowly loses his family and friends, he finds himself on the streets struggling to survive. Dr. Janusz Korczak, who ran the Warsaw orphanage, rescues him. Before the war, Korczak was well-known as a children’s rights advocate. As portrayed by Shepard, he is a man old before his time motivated by a need to instill hope in children trying to endure hopeless lives.

This fictionalized account of the eventual friendship between Aron and the good doctor is harrowing and riveting.

The Book of Aron
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
253 pages

 

Family Knots   Leave a comment

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Families can be so complicated and Anne Tyler has banked on this fact in all of her novels. Her most recent, A Spool of Blue Thread, is no exception.

Abby and Red Whitshank are the kind of folks that raise their four kids, go to work every day, are regarded favorably, pay their bills, have a peripheral connection to a church and know little about either each other or their family history. At one point, in a jesting tone, the omniscient narrator notes there are two family stories: one about the family home on Bouton Road in a respectable, comfortable Baltimore neighborhood, and the other about Red’s sister’s marriage.

Of course, there are more, many more. And Tyler slowly, almost teasingly, reveals them. There’s a good reason why she spends so much time describing the Bouton Road house built by Red’s father.

Initially, the novel appears to focus on Denny, the ne’er-do-well son who floats in and out of the family’s vision. Once he’s clearly established as unreliable and secretive, the focus shifts. Multiple times. Denny has two sisters, but they are the least developed characters. Stem, the youngest son, soon becomes a focal point, as do Red’s parents. Though separated by a generation, the secrets and pasts associated with these three are what move the narrative.

Tyler is not afraid to throw in surprises, which in retrospect were actually subtly foreshadowed. Her ability to show the strengths and foibles of family life are engaging, occasionally humorous and always insightful.

A Spool of Blue Thread
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
368 pages