Archive for the ‘childhood’ Tag

Mother and Son   Leave a comment

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Shuggie Bain, the title character of Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, is heartbreaking. But, don’t avoid it. The characters, notably Shuggie and his mother Agnes, are vividly portrayed with hopes and flaws.

The story is bookended by 1992 when Shuggie is a young man. By contrast, most of the narrative occurs in the 1980s.  The seamy parts of Glasgow are brought to life, complete with Scottish dialect, out-of-work miners, alcoholics and low-rent housing. The setting is as much a character as Shuggie and others.

Agnes is an alcoholic whose efforts at sobriety are rare. She left her first husband for Shuggie’s father, who in turn, leaves her. Her two older children find ways to escape the toxic home life, so Shuggie remains to care for his mother while dealing with her neglect. He’s optimistic she’ll change and be a proper parent. He also believes if this happens, he’ll become a normal boy.

Shuggie is effeminate, so he’s bullied, but never understands the insults nor reasons he’s taunted. In this regard, Douglas has crafted a beautiful character whose innocence is his downfall. When coupled with his devotion to Agnes as her caregiver, he’s not left with much of a childhood.

Because of her beauty, Agnes believes she deserves more in life but does nothing to attain it. Although it’s evident to everyone around her, she refuses to acknowledge her alcoholism. She’s also certain the right man will come along to save her. In fact, he’s been at her side all his life.

Shuggie Bain

Four Bookmarks

Grove Press, 2020

430 pages

Rejection and Survival   1 comment

Poetic and heartbreaking, harsh and heartwarming are all apt descriptions of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel combines two of my favorite elements in one: a love story and a mystery.

Kya is six years old when she watches as her mother, carrying a suitcase, walks away from the ramshackle family home in the North Carolina marshlands never looking back. Soon, her older siblings do likewise, leaving the child with her father, an often violent drunk. Eventually, he leaves, too.

The years pass and Kya not only survives on her own, but knows the birds, fauna, flora and tides that define the marsh; the land is her life. She’s maliciously referred to as the Marsh Girl by those in the nearby town. Through the kindness of Tate, a young boy a few years older, Kya learns to read and write. When he leaves for college years later, Chase, another young man, takes an interest in her. He’s popular, handsome and hides his relationship with Kya knowing it would tarnish his reputation.

When Chase is found dead, Kya is an immediate suspect.

Owens writing beautifully of the marsh, its inlets and the open sea beyond its horizon. Kya is an endearing character, although it’s hard, at times to believe she was able to successfully slip through the cracks and thrive on her own. She’s intelligent and resourceful, she’s also experienced heartbreak after heartbreak, but it’s easy to dispel the idea that she could, in fact, be a murderer.

Where the Crawdads Sing
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2018
370 pages

Friendship Italian Style   Leave a comment

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It’s a rare movie that’s better than a book, so I didn’t want to gamble by watching My Brilliant Friend before reading the first in Elena Ferrante’s series known as the Neapolitan Novels. Although initially slow moving, the book didn’t disappoint. After watching the first episode on HBO, I can attest that it closely, beautifully follows the story of friendship, love and life in the outskirts of Naples, Italy.

Narrated by Elena, the plot follows her ties with her friend Lila, their families and community. Elena is the “good” girl of the two. Lila is fearless, tough. Both are exceptionally bright, although Lila doesn’t expend as much energy and concern into feeding her intellect; hers is an innate intelligence.

Ferrante deftly describes the poverty, the over-crowding, the classroom, the apartment buildings, the local businesses and the people who inhabit them. The reader can feel the dust from the dirt streets and smell the imagined cooking that must be emanating from the Italian kitchens. (Scant attention is paid to food, so it’s an assumption that meals are prepared; it’s Italy, after all.)

The girls are competitive and caring. Like many friendships, it waxes and wanes. Yet, Elena knows no else is capable of such meaningful conversation and exchange of ideas as Lila. Elena pursues her education from elementary to middle school and finally high school, but her friend’s parents don’t allow their daughter to continue. Still, the girls remain intellectual equals.

Against this backdrop are subplots of honor, superstitions and long-held societal traditions.

My Brilliant Friend
Four Bookmarks
Europa, 2012
331 pages

Listening to I Forget What   4 comments

The title alone, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, is sufficient to lure the imagination, and Alexandra Fuller’s colorful, poignant memoir of her mother is enough to keep it willingly ensnared. This is a sequel to Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, which I did not read. But then I didn’t read Cocktail Hour either. Instead, I listened to it.

Conditions have to be just right for me to turn to an audiobook. Usually, it means a road trip, but in this case I wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, I was stuck painting the downstairs bathroom.

Fuller’s mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa,” is a character full of flaws, passion and imagination. The author makes it clear it was not easy being her daughter. Nicola is exuberant to the point of embarrassment of all around her. While Fuller  does not hold back in detailing her mother’s domineering persona, neither does she waffle in showing the occasional moments Nicola allowed an approachable, sensitive side to appear. This is not a daughter-as-victim tell all memoir. It is a daughter recognizing who she is thanks to, and in spite of, her mother.

One of the joys of listening to this, rather than having read the book is that Nicola loves to sing. Like Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, the narrator breaks into song. Sure, I can imagine a tune in my head as I read, but here it was treat hearing this aspect of Nicola’s personality.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Four Stars
Alexandra Fuller
Recorded Books, LLC, 2011