Archive for the ‘Alfred A. Knopf’ Tag

Missed Opportunities   Leave a comment

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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

“Notes From a Young Black Chef”   1 comment

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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

Disappearing People   Leave a comment

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Julia Phillips’ descriptions of the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia as lonely and cold are vivid in her novel Disappearing Earth. The title is fitting given the geographic isolation and the way the people move in, then away from the plot.

Beginning with the abduction of two young girls, the narrative features a range of characters with strong, tenuous or nonexistent ties to the victims. What they share is the locale and an awareness of the missing girls.

The first chapter is called August. Subsequent chapters/months represent the passage of time and introduce another situation involving others. The result is a disconnect more suggestive of a short story collection than a novel since there’s often no resolution for the problems or experiences described. Issues range from a young woman in college with a manipulative boyfriend, to a lost dog, from ethnic traditions to dissolution of friendships or family estrangements. Nonetheless, most chapters are captivating. These are interesting people, and the rich writing of each situation only begs for more. The list of main characters included to keep track of who’s who helps.

The investigation of the missing girls is initially a priority for the police, but eventually loses momentum. By contrast, a young indigenous woman who previously went disappeared was barely acknowledged by authorities.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in the setting; it’s a character unto itself. The weather, the light and the landscape, which includes rocky beaches, densely-wooded forests and looming active volcanos, are austere – like its people.

Disappearing Earth
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
256 pages

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

Out for Blood   Leave a comment

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Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup reads like a mystery but is based on fact. John Carreyrou, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, provides a thorough look at Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes. Fraud and manipulation are the tools Holmes used to convince big name donors to invest in her startup that she boasted would radically change the way blood testing is done in the medical industry.

Holmes is portrayed as an attractive, brilliant Stanford University student who left school to pursue her vision of producing a compact, in-home blood testing device. In her early 20s she managed to create a company valued at more than $9 billion.

Suspense is created through Carreyrou’s extensive research and interviews indicating deceit, poor management and greed. His efforts to convey the truth are nearly thwarted multiple times by Holmes, Sunny Balwani (chief operating officer and Holmes’ boyfriend) and their attorneys. Further roadblocks include well-respected, leaders and business gurus who refused to consider Holmes as anything other than a medical-startup miracle worker. The board included, among others, former Secretary of State George Schultz and Gen. James Mattis, who later served as Secretary of Defense.

Despite the incredulity of many Theranos employees and a lawsuit by a vindictive former neighbor, Holmes was able to secure contracts with Walgreen’s and Safeway to place Theranos products in stores without producing a successful prototype.

Holmes acted on the theory that people believe what they want to believe. True, until they no longer can.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
339 pages (includes notes and index)

Ann Tyler’s Clock Dance   1 comment

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Clock Dance is distinguished from Anne Tyler’s other works because of its setting. Yes, Baltimore does figure into the plot, but not immediately. Other locales provide the initial settings. The story doesn’t come alive, though, until the main character arrives in Charm City.

Three phases of Willa Drake’s life ultimately influence her character: as a child when her mother randomly, and temporarily, leaves the family; as a college coed considering whether or not to accept a marriage proposal without finishing her degree; finally, in her sixties when she receives a call to come to Baltimore from Arizona to care for Cheryl, the 9-year-old daughter of her grown son’s injured ex-girlfriend, Denise. Yes, that’s a tenuous connection.

Before Baltimore, Willa is widowed when her boys are teenagers. They grow up, she remarries and has little communication with them. The surprise request is from Denise’s neighbor who sees Willa’s number on a list of emergency contacts. It takes some persuasion, but Willa agrees to help people about whom she knows nothing. In the process of caring for others who need her, Willa discovers a sense of belonging she hasn’t experienced.

Tyler’s characters are vulnerable, real and endearing. Cheryl is a no-nonsense kid whose strong sense of independence comes from being the daughter of a single mother. The author brings Baltimore to life through descriptions of Denise and Cheryl’s neighborhood and its quirky residents, of which there are many.

Although somewhat predictable, Clock Dance is a charming tale of the need to belong.

Clock Dance
Four+ Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
292 pages

Here and There   Leave a comment

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In the late 1930s Gertrude Stein wrote of Oakland, Calif., “… there, there is no there there.” It’s apt, then, that Tommy Orange has co-opted part of the quote as the title of his novel. Orange introduces readers to several Native Americans whose lives intersect in the city on the East Bay.

Never as glamourous, wealthy or viewed in as positive a light as San Francisco, Oakland is, nonetheless, the focal point for Orange with different perspectives provided by the 12 characters he introduces. Their stories, told in separate chapters, are shaped by the urban environment and the upcoming Big Oakland Pow Wow.

Violence, alcoholism, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, traditions, estranged families and more are contributing factors to the scenarios Orange creates. Most are heart-breaking, yet humor and joy are also evident.

Opal Viola Violet Bear is first introduced as an 11-year-old in 1970 when her mother brings her and her older sister, Jacqui, to Alcatraz as part of the all-tribe occupation. She re-enters the story through the eyes of her grandson, Orvil Red Feather. Except, technically, Opal is Orvil’s and his two younger brothers aunt. Although his name clearly identifies his heritage, he knows little about it. He discovers dance regalia in Opal’s closet. He learns what he can about Indian dance and culture online. The Pow Wow is his chance to be part of something he knows very little about.

Reasons for the others to attend the Pow Wow range from dark to hopeful, which makes the narrative so engaging.

There There
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knoph, 2018
290 pages

Life and relationships on Colorado’s Plains   Leave a comment

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Kent Haruf’s slow moving, methodical novels immediately embrace readers. Eventide is no exception. The setting is rural Colorado, where seasons dictate life’s pace.

Haruf reintroduces several characters from his bestselling Plainsong, including brothers Harold and Raymond McPheron, Victoria Robideaux and Colorado’s eastern plains. The McPherons, who have spent their entire lives working side by side on the family farm, have never married. Victoria, the unwed teenage mother they took in in the previous novel, is ready to leave for college with her young daughter. The impact the mother and child have had on the McPherons is tangible; their reaction to the pair leaving is parental.

Yet theirs is only part of the narrative. Holt is a small town, where, it seems, everyone is acquainted, whether personally or indirectly, with everyone else – or at least knows of their business. There’s Luther and Betty, with their two children, living on food stamps who meet regularly with a social worker, Rose. Despite her best efforts, the parents have no parenting skills and the children suffer.

Haruf describes relationships in the sparsest of terms, yet they’re vivid. Some are painful, others humorous, many loving, but all are real. For example, Betty and Luther don’t intentionally put their kids in harm’s way, but neither do they know how to protect them.

Even with the subplots involving other residents of Holt, the focus always returns to the McPherons, particularly Raymond after tragedy strikes.

Haruf uses no quotation marks and terse dialog, yet the conversations speak volumes.

Eventide
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
300 pages

The Rising/Setting Sun   Leave a comment

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gets off to a slow start in its account of Biafra’s struggle for independence from Nigeria in the 1960s. It gains momentum as the story evolves from more than a glimpse into African history into the lives of the characters experiencing the turmoil.

Sisters Olanna and Kainene are twins by birth only. Olanna is beautiful, warm and relinguishes her privileged lifestyle to live with Odenigbo, a university professor and strong supporter of the revolution against Nigeria. Kainene is distant, not as attractive and lives with Richard, a reserved Englishman. Ugwu is the young servant boy in Odenigbo’s house who becomes part of the family.

A host of other characters, with names hard to pronounce and keep straight, inhabit the narrative, but the above are the ones with whom the reader becomes attached. This is thanks to the author’s early descriptions of their lives before the conflict and how they are changed as a consequence of it.

Talk of a revolution becomes war and the efforts to establish Biafra as a free, independent nation push Olanna and Odenigbo deeper into the inconveniences and dangers of the conflict. Hunger, filth, death and despair surround them in their efforts to survive.

The past real-world events addressing race and class issues, ethnic histories and colonialism in Africa is haunting. As the novel progresses to its frenetic climax, I wanted a return to its earlier, meandering pace if only to spend more time with the characters.

Half of a Yellow Sun
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
433 pages

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