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Archive for the ‘families’ Tag

Family Ties   Leave a comment

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Grief, atonement and tradition are all bound together in LaRose by Louise Erdrich. The title refers not only to the young boy shuttled back and forth between two families, but also previous ancestors, all women, with the same name.

LaRose’s father accidently shoots his young son’s best friend, the child of neighbors. As part of Ojibwe custom of retribution, La Rose’s parents give him to the grieving parents. Interspersed with the adjustments this entails are stories of the original LaRose, a strong, intelligent woman able to see more than others with knowledge others don’t possess. Her traits, that include tribal medicine and a keen awareness of others, are passed down through four generations. Even the youngest of the namesakes has special, insightful characteristics.

This is more than an account about two families who lose a son. Although, the descriptions of the two sets of parents and siblings are full of depth and richness. It is also a narrative that examines the personal histories of many of the reservation’s residents, including the parish priest and a ne’er-do-well.

Erdrich blends the traditional Indian ways with modern life; the novel begins in 1999. Humor, rich descriptions of the landscape and dynamic characters make this an engaging work. It is sad, even heartbreakingly so; yet there are also moments of joy and revelation of life’s beauty.

Ultimately, this is a love story – in fact, many love stories: parental love and sacrifice; husband and wife love (and sacrifice); the relationships among siblings; and new relationships.

La Rose
Four Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2016
373 pages

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Distributing/Accepting Apologies   Leave a comment

Fredrik Backman author of the acclaimed A Man Called Ove has found a successful formula, which once again emerges in My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry. The title is  a successful attention-getter – certainly more so than the earlier book. Like Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me assembles diverse characters who are, initially, only tenuously connected.

The major difference between the two novels, though, lies in the main protagonist. Here it’s seven-year-old-soon-to-be-eight Elsa. Although there are plenty of explanations for her being so precocious, Elsa’s behavior, vocabulary and thought-processes, at times, leans more to incredulity than not. Her grandmother is partly to blame and mostly to be celebrated for the young girl’s sense of curiosity, intellect and strong sense of self. But, and this is no spoiler alert since the book cover reveals as much, the grandmother dies leaving Elsa to navigate a world where being different is difficult.

Elsa is charged with delivering a series of letters written by her grandmother. They’re for tenants in the building where Elsa lives but whom she barely knows. Wanna guess what happens?

Humor and pathos move hand-in-hand throughout the narrative, which also includes fairy tales of secret lands. Again, this is thanks to Elsa’s grandmother.

I found My Grandmother Asked Me to be less engaging that Ove, but nonetheless satisfying by its conclusion. Tying up loose ends isn’t always a bad thing. It certainly fits with Backman’s storytelling technique and his ability to create interesting characters full of foibles and heart.

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry
Four Bookmarks
Washington Square Press, 2015
372 pages

A Grand Life   3 comments

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Epic Russian novels have long appealed to me for many reasons: the history, the descriptions of stark landscapes and lively urban settings, the storytelling, and the names. Ah, the names.

Author Amor Towles ties all these elements together in A Gentleman in Moscow.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, known as Sasha among a few and as the Count among many, is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s grand Metropol Hotel in 1922. This is an engrossing tale about a man who grew up with every comfort and advantage during tsarist Russia. Although his lifestyle changes, it unexpectedly expands.

At the beginning of his confinement, the mother country is in the early stages of political and economic changes that continue for decades. The Count is undeterred by his reversal of fortunes. Towles presents a contented man, knowledgeable, kind, charismatic, happy with routines, yet imaginative. As the Count’s story moves through the years he faces challenges greater than the restrictions of his movements, but always with a good attitude.

Towles injects humor and history with a hotel guestbook of intriguing characters. Interestingly, each chapter begins with the letter A, like the count’s (and author’s) first name.

Here is a novel of the never-wanting-it-to-end variety. The Count’s humanity, his relationships/friendships, and the rich memories of his childhood overshadow his loss of freedom. At times it’s easy to forget that he is a captive in a majestic hotel. He can’t actually check out any time he wants, but why would he want to leave?

A Gentleman in Moscow
Five Bookmarks
Amor Towles
Viking, 2016
462 pages

Family Life   Leave a comment

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Who’d imagine that an uninvited guest who shows up at a baby’s christening with a bottle of gin could divide, then fuse, two families over a span of 50 years? Ann Patchett, of course. Humor, tragedy, quirky, yet believable characters result in a compelling story.

In Commonwealth, Patchett creates a novel within a novel – of sorts. She deftly illustrates the Rube Goldberg effect initiated by one man’s attraction to another man’s wife. The havoc it inflicts is expected, the alliances it forms aren’t.

The Cousins and Keating families are brought together when Beverly Keating divorces her husband to marry Bert Cousins. Beverly is a beauty with two young daughters; Bert, the gin-carrying party crasher, is egocentric and the father of two girls and two boys. The Keating girls move with Beverly and Bert to Virginia, while his kids stay with their mother in southern California during the school year.

The six children spend summers together in Virginia. Their combined disdain for their parents and unrestricted activities form bonds that continue into adulthood. The novel begins in the early ‘60s long before the concept of helicopter parenting took flight. Bert hastily retreats when his kids arrive, leaving Beverly, who’s emotionally detached, to manage alone.

Much of the narrative follows Franny, Beverly’s younger daughter. Franny’s relationship with her sister and step-siblings is told in flashbacks moving from childhood to young adult to middle age. In Patchett’s hands, Franny is optimistic; she looks for the best– even when it’s unlikely to surface.

Commonwealth
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2016
322 pages

Inevitability   Leave a comment

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I planned on not reading Being Mortal, but plans have a way of changing. My reservations about author Atul Gawande’s best seller were linked to the subtitle: Medicine and What Matters in the End. This year I faced a milestone birthday and some health issues affected my family. All in all it seemed as if the good doctor’s book wasn’t for me. Yet, it was and it wasn’t; the best audience might be millennials. Of course, they’re not the only ones who will be, or are, impacted by their parents’ declining health and well being.

Gawande’s a surgeon who questions the way American culture treats the elderly. He offers several stark contrasts to the situation experienced by his 110-year-old grandfather in India who was respected, even revered, because of his age. He was acknowledged by anyone who entered the family home and consulted on major family issues.

Initially, Gawande focuses on nursing homes and retirement communities. He finds little to celebrate in this area despite efforts by a few individuals seeking better solutions. The author then turns to medical situations and the efforts people go through to extend their lives despite poor odds – odds often encouraged by physicians with the best intentions, albeit not necessary with the most honest answers.

Through encounters with caregivers including family members, Hospice personnel and the elderly, Gawande nudges readers to consider the ways to live life while growing older (or dealing with illness) as the best way to face the inevitable: mortality.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Metropolitan Press, 2014
282 pages

Seeking Refuge   Leave a comment

I hate to admit it, but I’m not as shocked as I once was by the barrage of images in the media revealing the plight of refugees from war-torn countries. The accounts of horror, squalor and multitudes are now commonplace. Thankfully, Nadia Hashimi’s fictional When the Moon is Low has shaken me from complacency in a way the reality no longer does.

This beautifully written novel follows Fereiba from her birth in Kabul to motherhood as she flees from Afghanistan with three children in tow.

Much of the narrative is first person voice as Fereiba recounts her life which begins when her mother dies giving birth. Her father remarries, but Fereiba is a motherless daughter in a country with little regard for women. She’s initially denied the opportunity to attend school, but eventually pursues an education and ultimately becomes a teacher. An arranged marriage provides her with the love, support and friendship she never experiences growing up.

With the rise of the Taliban, Fereiba fears for her family’s lives. What follows is an arduous journey, the kindness of strangers and the heartbreaking separation that occurs when she is forced to choose between waiting for her missing adolescent son, Saleem, and seeking care for sickly infant Aziz.

Midway through, Fereiba’s voice gives way to Saleem’s perspective as he tries to find his family. The goal is England where Fereiba’s sister lives. Saleem’s experiences are harrowing, but his determination is heroic in his efforts to reunite with his mother, sister and brother.

When the Moon is Low
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
William Morrow, 2015
382 pages

Fine Dining   Leave a comment

Dinner with Edward is Isabel Vincent’s poignant tribute to an unlikely friendship that evolved for several years over elegantly-prepared meals.

Edward is the 93-year-old father of one of Vincent’s friends; his wife of 69 years has recently died. Vincent is in the midst of a rocky marriage. She is initially reluctant to meet Edward, after all he’s of another generation and she isn’t interested in taking on the role of caretaker. However, once they meet she comes to learn as much about herself as she does about cooking, dining, relationships and manners of a bygone era.

They begin to meet weekly at Edward’s apartment where he always has a martini glass waiting for her in the freezer and a gourmet meal to serve. Their conversations touch on recipes, Edward’s sweet memories of his deceased wife, Vincent’s job as an investigative reporter for The New York Post, her husband and daughter – among many other subjects.

Such a memoir has the potential to be sappy, but Vincent avoids this pitfall through the honest, albeit terse, descriptions of her own emotions and the imagery she creates based on the memories Edward shares with her. This is not a romance in the physical sense, but in an emotional one.

Each chapter begins with a menu Edward prepared. It always includes a dessert and the wine served. It isn’t a good idea to read this on an empty stomach.

More than anything, Vincent shows that the sustenance food provides goes well beyond what’s on a plate.

Dinner With Edward
Four Bookmarks
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hills, 2016
213 pages