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Archive for the ‘Alfred A. Knopf’ Tag

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

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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

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