Archive for the ‘families’ Tag

Looks, Lies and Life   Leave a comment

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The Lying Life of Adults is Elena Ferrante’s new novel. Although it has similarities to her Neapolitan Quartet, notably the setting and a young female protagonist, it’s more introspective and a little less engaging.

Giovanna is a young teenager who overhears a conversation between her parents in which her father describes her as ugly. In fact, he says, she looks as bad as his estranged sister, Vittoria. Until this point, Giovanna has admired both her parents, felt secure in her family, and was completely unaware of any relatives, let alone her aunt.

The eavesdropping leads Giovanna to find Vittoria and discover not only a part of Naples she never knew, but also family secrets ultimately leading to a transformation of looking beyond the obvious. It’s not necessarily an engrossing narrative, but it is Ferrante. Adolescence is a difficult time; the author deftly illustrates this with the self-absorbed, manipulative youth and adults.

The author is at her best describing the class structure within Italy, in particular Naples. It’s easy to visualize how education plays a role in the lives of the residents of this southern Italian coastal city. References to dialect and coarse behavior further emphasize the line dividing social classes.

It is problematic Giovanna is not a particularly inspiring character. Yes, her independence does eventually surface, but her relationships with others are one-dimensional. Frankly, she’s a wimp. Granted, Vittoria is odd and her parents lose their bearings. Nonetheless, her efforts to find herself in their world of deceptions and accusations really should be more interesting.

The Lying Life of Adults

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Europa Editions, 2020

322 pages

Love, Ghosts and Family   Leave a comment

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is a terse novel involving ghosts, survival, and, at its core, familial bonds. All aspects are told from the perspectives of 13-year-old Jojo; his drug-addicted, negligent mother, Leonie; and Richie, the spirit of a young boy imprisoned years ago for stealing food. The three voices are distinct even as their experiences merge.

Jojo lives with his younger sister and grandparents on a rundown farm near the Mississippi delta. His grandmother lies dying, while Riv, his grandfather, tries to maintain an even keel for his grandchildren. Although, Leonie’s inconsistent presence in their lives isn’t appreciated by anyone, she insists on taking the children on a road trip to the state penitentiary where their father is soon to be released.

Richie’s connection is to Riv who did his best to protect the boy when they were imprisoned at the same time years ago. Jojo, the only one who sees Richie, knows part of his story but Riv has never told him the ending. Since it works to have one ghost, why not another? Leonie’s dead brother, shot down in his youth, makes his presence known only to her.

The phantasms are neither spooky, nor superfluous. Their presence propels the narrative focused on the family ties that bind and those that never do. Jojo is an insightful, caring character much older than age. His closeness to Riv compensates for much that’s missing in his life, but Ward ensures the reader never overlooks the loss they shoulder.

Sing, Unburied, Sing
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2017
289 pages

Little Fires Everywhere: Read the Book First   Leave a comment

*This review was written in 2018. I thought I’d posted it, but turns out it’d been languishing in my Documents folder all this time. At least I remembered I’d read the book before watching the first episode on Hulu….

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The way families communicate with each other and the rest of the world is at the heart of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This novel falls into the can’t-put-it-down category. The characters are haunting in their embodiment of what they believe is right and wrong. When those lines are blurred, they become even more real – like people we know, or like the people we are.

Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl arrive in the upscale, planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. They rent an apartment owned by Elena Richardson, the mother four high school-aged children. Elena, who’s mostly referred to by the author as Mrs. Richardson, has lived her life as if following a recipe: step-by-step never considering substitutions or variations. Mia is an artist. She and Pearl move from place to place with the regularity of seasons. Mia promises Pearl this time, they’ll settle down.

That the families become intertwined is no surprise. The narrative opens with the Richardson’s manor-like home burning to the ground. Like bookends, this is where things wrap up.

Pearl and Moody Richardson become best friends. These are like-minded, intelligent kids who don’t quite fit in with the popular crowd like Moody’s older brother and sister. There’s also his troubled sister, Izzy, adding to the dynamics.

Little Fires Everywhere
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2017
338 pages

A Puzzling Title   Leave a comment

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Family dynamics, as much as cultural expectations, are at the heart of A Place for Us. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel follows an Indian-American Muslim family. Years ago, parents Layla and Rafiq left their homes in India to establish a new life in Northern California and raise three children. Their faith determines their lifestyle, much of their social interactions, fashion and appearance.

The story begins the day before Hadia’s wedding. She is the elder sister of Huda and their brother Amar. His presence is both a reason for joy and a cause for concern. He’d been estranged – for reasons which are exhaustively detailed in the subsequent sections/chapters.

Mirza’s narrative moves to the past. First, summarizing Layla and Rafiq’s marriage; then focusing on the children as they grow up. Initially, the focus is on Hadia, but slowly shifts to Amar. Rafiq’s expectations of his daughters are few. Both sisters are obedient, studious and observant of Muslim practices; yet they have dreams and goals beyond what their parents envision.

Amar is intelligent and sensitive, but he struggles in school and questions some Muslim principles. A forbidden romance, a long-troubled relationship with Fariq and more contribute to Amar leaving his family three years prior.

The penultimate chapter returns to the wedding day, which is filled with tension felt by all the characters. In an interesting, and unexpected, change of narrator, the final chapter provides Fariq’s perspective, most notably his love for Amar. Unfortunately, slow pacing and some predictable consequences are the book’s downfall.

A Place for Us
Three Bookmarks
SPJ for Hogarth, 2018
377 pages

Breaking the Rules   Leave a comment

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A Rule Against Murder is the fourth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. I’ve been told to read the canon, comprised of 16, in order. Clearly, I have a ways to go, but what a fun journey to undertake. The problem lies in wanting to pick up the next book immediately after putting down the last.

Armand Gamache is the kind, intelligent, perceptive, chief inspector on vacation with his wife celebrating their anniversary. They are at a luxurious, remote inn where they’ve often stayed. However, this time a death occurs, which isn’t initially clear as accidental or murder, but since he is already on the scene, Gamache oversees the investigation.

Penny writes mysteries, so it’s no surprise there will be something for Gamache and his team to uncover. What’s most engaging is the slow, methodical, yet lyrical, manner the author incorporates to arrive at a possible crime, which isn’t immediate. Instead, the author describes the calm, rustic setting, the inn’s staff, the guests and, most fun of all, the Gamaches’ relationship. The scene unfolds like a travelogue for a get-away to a relaxing resort, complete with vivid, mouthwatering descriptions of the food served.

Also staying at the inn is an extended family, most of whom prove to be as unlikable as Gamache is charming. When a family member is found crushed beneath a newly erected statue commemorating the patriarch, clues are sought to determine the cause. There is no shortage of possible suspects and motives, although deciphering who remains in question.

A Rule Against Murder
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Minotaur Books, 2008
322 pages

Housing Issues   Leave a comment

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Usually it’s the first line of a Barbara Kingsolver book that grabs me; it took much longer with Unsheltered. However, what may have been lacking in initial engagement is negated by the lingering thoughts since closing the pages of her newest novel.

This is a two-in-one story about two families living in the same house but separated by two centuries. Aside from the dilapidated structure, at first it seems there is little else in common. Yet, it’s surprising how much they share. Kingsolver methodically reveals the similarities by alternating chapters between the old and the contemporary.  Politics, prejudices, meaning of family and beauty of friendship are portrayed in each time frame. And always, another part of the house is falling apart. Neither family has the wherewithal to make the necessary repairs.

Willa Knox is the matriarch whose family has inherited the home. Her counterpart from the previous century is Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher, who lived with his wife, mother-in-law and spirited younger sister-in-law.

While researching the history of the house, Willa learns about Mary Treat, a 19th century botanist who corresponded with Darwin and other scientists of her day and becomes a friend of Thatcher’s. Treat is another connection between the past and present.

Kingsolver incorporates several techniques such as the parallels among the characters in each era and ending each chapter with a line that serves as the title of next section. These, and other aspects, kept me turning pages – even if not always at a rapid rate.

Unsheltered
Four Bookmarks
Harper, 2018
464 pages

Hope and Lies   Leave a comment

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Lies, lies and more lies are at the heart of Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. This courtroom thriller is rich with possible culprits responsible for two deaths: a mother and an autistic child.

The novel’s first line is only a hint of what’s to come: “My husband asked me to lie.” Young Yoo, referring to her spouse’s request quickly acknowledges that it wasn’t a big lie. Yet as the author deftly illustrates, a series of falsehoods no matter the size, can lead to unexpected consequences.

The narrative begins with an explanation of what’s referred to as “The Incident.” Korean immigrants Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment facility: the Miracle Submarine, named for its shape and proximity to Miracle Creek. This pressurized oxygen chamber is used for therapy by two autistic children, a wheelchair-bound teenager all accompanied by theirs mothers and a physician seeking a cure for infertility. A fire erupts leaving two dead thanks to an unknown arsonist.

Jump ahead to the courtroom where  the surviving mother is on trial charged with murder, hers was the child killed. Each chapter is told in the voice of those involved: the Yoos, their daughter and the adults in the submarine at the time of fire. The evidence points to the mother, and her indifferent attitude makes it easy to believe she is guilty.

Yet, many lies slowly surface with suspicion clouding every character. Ultimately, readers are left asking themselves how far they would go to protect their loved ones.

Miracle Creek
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Sarah Crichton Books, 2019
351 pages

Our Once Lively Dog   7 comments

 (This is obviously not a review of a book or restaurant, just my feelings today.)

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              Jackson’s last day in the sun.

Today I said goodbye and thank you to Jackson, my shadow/companion of the last 12 years. This Pointer mix, we adopted from the Humane society filled our hearts in ways we never imagined. Andrew gets credit for picking him. Later he slept on the floor with Jackson that first night home. We had two sons in high school and one in college when he joined our family.

Each of us has special recollections of our exuberant dog, who until the last month, still had a lot of puppy in him.

He could be annoying whenever someone came to the door. He didn’t jump as much as bounce around. He knew which friends  meant a hike was in store, and he was always ready for a hike. This morning was no exception. His weakened state didn’t deter his desire. As much as he wanted to keep going, I knew it had to be short.

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                                    With our Swedish son’s shoe; he didn’t chew, he just liked it nearby.

Jackson is the third dog I’ve had as an adult. I think each member of my family considers him theirs. Having said goodbye to the others, including those belonging to friends, I expected this to be somewhat easier than it was; not so. Perhaps it’s because he filled another role when my husband and I became empty-nesters.

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                                                 The view from one of regular morning hikes.

He greeted me with a hug each morning, although this honor was later shared with my daughters-in-law. Even as adults, with pets of their own, my sons remained devoted to Jackson. Their sadness intensifies mine. So, I’ll try to think of Jackson’s happier days, because they’re among mine, too.

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                      Jackson’s first day home.

Posted June 24, 2019 by bluepagespecial in Uncategorized

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Neapolitan Novel Book 2   Leave a comment

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Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has hooked me with The Neapolitan Novels. Book Two, The Story of a New Name, picks up where My Brilliant Friend abruptly ended: at a wedding. The narrative moves forward while looking back to further develop the characters and plot line.

The friendship between Lila and Elena is based on the appreciation each has for the other’s intellect. However, due to family circumstances only Elena is given the opportunity to pursue a formal education. Lila studies independently. She is also newly married to the wealthy shopkeeper, but her volatile personality remains unchanged. She soon discovers, in her marriage, that her ability to get her way has more dire consequences than when she was younger.

Much of the beauty of Ferrante’s writing, translated by Ann Goldstein, lies in the vivid descriptions of the small town near Naples where much of the action takes place and of the characters she has created. Some are thoughtful, driven and kind, while others are impulsive and mean, some are smarter than others. None are one-dimensional.

After the wedding, Elena continues in high school where she excels as a student, despite some ups and downs. As the story progresses, life’s responsibilities take hold: military service, work and families. Elena’s education continues in Pisa. Lila has an affair with the young man who Elena has long been attracted to.

This may sound like a soap opera, but in Ferrante’s hands it is a moving story about choices, opportunities and testing the bonds of friendship.

The Story of a New Name
Four Bookmarks
Europa Editions, 2013
471 pages

 

Family Ties Beyond Race   Leave a comment

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam makes one wonder whether to emphasize the word that with a judgmental tone or of nonchalance. In either case, Jacob is Rebecca Stone’s firstborn who fills her with love and anxiety; she is certain she doesn’t know how to mother. Thanks to Priscilla, the kind, easy-going La Leche League liaison, Rebecca gradually gains confidence as a new parent. However, this slow-to-reach self-assurance is, initially, completely dependent on Priscilla to the point that Rebecca offers the African-American woman employment as Jacob’s nanny.

The situation allows Rebecca to pursue her endeavors as a poet. It also creates a strong friendship between the two women that transcends race and maternal roles. A few years later, when Priscilla becomes pregnant and dies during childbirth, Rebecca immediately offers to adopt the baby. Rebecca’s husband uneasily goes along with the plan. Rebecca’s adult daughter, who is also expecting a child, agrees. The result is a melding of the two families, but less so of the different cultures.

Rebecca has grown up with privilege and her marriage to Christopher, an older, English diplomat, allows her to maintain the lifestyle to which she’s accustomed. Consequently, she’s made a lot of assumptions regarding race. Even after formally adopting Priscilla’s son, there is much she misunderstands.

Interestingly, Alam writes from a female perspective, and gets things right. His writing is engaging as Rebecca’s life, her family and career undergo major changes leaving the reader to question how else to face similar experiences.

That Kind of Mother
Four Bookmarks
Ecco, 2018
291 pages