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Archive for the ‘families’ Tag

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

 

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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

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

Family Mystery, Mysterious Family   Leave a comment

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I thought I had Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway figured out about halfway through. I was close, but close doesn’t count when murder and deceit are involved.

Ware masterfully creates a sympathetic main character in Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a 21-year-old plagued by debt and loneliness with no known relatives. That is, until a letter arrives naming her as a beneficiary in the will of someone identified as her grandmother. Hal knows this isn’t possible but schemes to learn more, even going so far as to concoct a plan to gain some portion of the will by misrepresenting herself. She makes her living as a tarot card reader who has learned how to tell people what they want to hear based on what they reveal about themselves. Hal is certain she can use the same approach with the Westaway family.

Of course, Hal is not the only one keeping secrets. Much of the fun lies in trying to determine the evil player among the deceased’s other living relatives. It’s clear Mrs. Westaway, the grandmother, was not a loving mother and her grown sons, Hal’s uncles, claim they want nothing to do with anything from her will. That is until it’s revealed that Hal is to inherit the bulk.

A short-tempered, intimidating housekeeper and methodically revealed truths add to Hal’s distress.

It’s hard to go wrong with vivid descriptions of the cold, wet landscape surrounding the dark, old mansion. Thus, Ware sets the scene for an engaging mystery.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Four Bookmarks
Scott Press, 2018
368 pages

Under a Swedish Mystery Spell   Leave a comment

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Swedish author Lars Kepler is actually the husband and wife team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril. It’s complicated. Nonetheless, Kepler’s The Hypnotist is a 500-page avalanche of a mystery. It quickly builds momentum from one dark crime to another only slowing its pace in the final pages.

The novel spans two weeks just before Christmas. Readers come to know and appreciate detective Joona Linna’s attention to detail and unwavering confidence in his ability to solve criminal cases. Dr. Eric Maria Bark, his wife, Simone, their son, Benjamin, are the good guys with Joona and a few others.

The short chapters, each identified by day and time, enhance the tempo. The story flows effortlessly from the first crime involving the murder of three family members; the seeming lone survivor is the son found at the scene covered in blood with life-threatening injuries Despite a promise made years earlier in which he vowed to never again use hypnosis on a patient, Eric is convinced it is the only way to help the injured boy.

Meanwhile, Benjamin is kidnapped and Eric must look to his past to find a connection.

Eric and Simone are flawed characters, which only enhances the novel’s appeal. Who wants to read about the perfect couple or family? Benjamin’s serious medical condition heightens the tension the longer he is held captive.

The prospect of reading a 500-page book may be daunting, but once started it’s difficult to put down. The lure of multiple mysteries and their resolutions is thrilling.

The Hypnotist
Four Bookmarks
Picador, 2009
503 pages

Food, Families and Fate   Leave a comment

The Comfort Food Diaries

Emily Nunn knows food. She wrote about it as a staff writer for The New Yorker and Chicago Tribune, among other publications. She also knows heartbreak and self-damaging behavior, which she shares in The Comfort Food Diaries.

A description of her seemingly-ideal life in Chicago where she lives with her boyfriend, dubbed “the engineer” and his lovely daughter, “the princess,” fades quickly. After Nunn learns that her brother has committed suicide she begins her own self-destructive tailspin through alcoholism and ending the romantic relationship.

Nunn reveals her backstory as she seeks to find balance in her life. The loss of her brother, her parents’ dysfunctional marriage – and ultimate divorce – her relationship with other siblings, relatives and friends fill the pages. At the suggestion of a friend, she embarks on a “comfort food tour.”

The direction of this tour is different than what I anticipated. Rather than a road trip around different parts of the country in search of consolation fare, Nunn sojourns to the places of her past and the role of food in her past and present. This isn’t a one-food-fits-all look at comfort, it is only about Nunn and her perceptions.

My family, for example, has dishes deemed “classics” in lieu of comfort foods. Not because they are universal, instead because they’re unique to us. Nunn, with her family and friends, has her own.

In addition to narrating her quest, Nunn shares recipes with her memories and new experiences. Her writing style is conversational and honest. She also knows how to whet the appetite.

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2017
310 pages

Digging Up the Past   Leave a comment

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When reading a mystery I want to be surprised; I also want to reach the solution on my own. This might seem contradictory, but it’s my benchmarks for a good thriller.

Both were achieved in Fiona Barton’s The Child. I was pleased to be right. Of course, it took most of the book to fit all of the pieces together, but I did. Rather than feel disappointed once I suspected how things would end, I was proud of my sleuthing abilities.

Three main characters move the story: Kate, a journalist intrigued by the discovery of an infant’s skeleton when an old house is demolished; Angela, whose infant daughter was kidnapped from the maternity ward more than 40 years ago; and Emma, a middle-aged woman with secrets, including a teen pregnancy. Emma’s mother, Jude, has a pivotal role in the novel’s progression.

Kate is convinced there’s more to the story than the gruesome discovery at a construction site. Meanwhile, Angela’s begins to hope that she will finally have an explanation of what happened to her daughter. Emma fears that her past has literally been uncovered. Meanwhile, Jude has no interest in looking in the rear-view mirror and dismisses Emma’s anxieties as part of the strained relationship between the two.

Through Kate, the author methodically reveals the heartbreaks and fears each woman has suffered in their respective lives while fitting together the ways in which they’re all connected. If intrigue isn’t enough, there’s also a bit of science thrown into the mix.

The Child
Four Bookmarks
Berkley, 2017
365 pages