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Archive for the ‘family’ Tag

Friends and Guests   Leave a comment

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Rules For Visiting is much more than a guide for would-be guests (and hosts) to follow. Rather, Jessica Francis Kane’s novel is an introspective look at how one moves through life based on the influences family and friends have on that journey.

May Attaway is a 40-year-old, single gardener. She pays more attention to the flora than to most people and situations. She’s observant when it comes to nature, but hasn’t mastered the art of social niceties. She has a few friends, but no one with whom she is in regular contact. It doesn’t occur to her that Leo, her car mechanic and the owner of a local taco shop, could be more than an acquaintance. Nor has she considered a co-worker would be more than a colleague.

When given a bonus at work for four weeks off with pay, May deliberates how to spend the time and ultimately decides to visit the four people she considers friends. Each represents different phases of her life.

The visits are spaced throughout different seasons. Between the trips, May ponders the relationships with her deceased mother, other family members and neighbors. The author deftly reminds the reader of May’s true passion through the many references of plants (including their formal scientific names). She also includes drawings of trees by Edward Carey marking the five sections of the book.

It’s no surprise that May learns much about herself and the importance of friendship in travels, but the process is nonetheless refreshing.

Rules for Visiting
Four Bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2019
287 pages

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Love and Espionage   Leave a comment

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American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson addresses a shopping list of timely topics: sexism, racism, politics and the meaning of family.

The story begins with a bang: the attempted murder of Marie Mitchell, an intelligence officer with the FBI. Marie’s story is told via a journal she writes to her young twin sons. She addresses them frequently, which reminds readers they’re privy to what a mother wants her children to know. As the novel progresses, the phrase in case anything happens could be added to most sentences.

Marie kills the would-be assassin who invades her Connecticut home, takes her kids and family dog to Martinique to hide in her estranged mother’s home. Marie’s narrative recounts her youth, including that she, her older sister and their father were left in New York City by their mother who returned to her island country.

Marie is intelligent and likeable, but her sister, Helene, has more personality as portrayed through Marie’s memories. The sisters are close. Helene decides she wants to be an FBI agent when she grows up; Marie follows suit after Helene mysteriously dies. However, because of gender and race, Marie’s given little opportunity for advancement.

Then, she’s approached to help undermine the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara.

Wilkinson takes the reader back to the 1960s, mid-1980s and early 1992 when the novel begins. At times fast-paced, at others more deliberate, Marie wonders about the role she’s assigned as she gets to know Sankara. Why she’s a target is the over-riding question.

American Spy
Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2018
292 pages

Against the Odds   Leave a comment

 

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Fans of Trevor Noah will hear his voice when reading Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. His humor, sensitivity and ability to engage his audience are evident from the first chapter.

Noah recounts his experiences growing up in South Africa. He is the son of black South African woman and a white German father. Interracial relationships were forbidden.

Interspersed with his personal accounts of his childhood and adolescence are explanations of Apartheid. Consequently, Born a Crime not only entertains, but also educates. Hypocrisy and racial discrimination are dominant themes.

Yet, Noah learns to rely on his street smarts. He discovers early that language is a great equalizer. Thanks to his mother, English was the first language he learned. He picked up several others as a child he saw the ways his mother used language to “cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”

This was not the only important lesson from his mother. She instilled in him the importance of an education even if it took years for him to appreciate its value.

Religion, poverty and domestic violence also are addressed in Noah’s memoir. His mother was religious, to the extreme. His attempts to avoid going to church, which would be an all-day activity on Sundays, were thwarted by his mother’s deep faith.

Noah doesn’t sugarcoat his past, neither as the biracial son born out of wedlock, nor some poor decisions made in an effort to overcome economic injustice. His mother always has his back and her faith in God never wavers.

Trevor Noah: Born a Crime
Stories from a South African Childhood
Four Bookmarks
Speigel & Grau, 2016
304 pages

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

Definition of Relationships   1 comment

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Initially, it was the title of Jackie Copleton’s novel, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, I found intriguing. Fortunately, as the story progressed, so did my interest.

The novel begins with Amaterasu opening her front door to a disfigured, middle-aged man claiming to be her grandson, Hideo. He was presumed dead 40 years ago following the bombing of Nagasaki. Amaterasu’s daughter was also killed on that fateful August day. Hideo bears the scars of radiation making it difficult to discern any recognizable features. He gives Amaterasu a sealed box of letters written by Sato, his adoptive father, the same man with whom she shares a history she prefers to forget.

The narrative moves back and forth in time to life before and after the bomb based on Amaterasu’s memories, her daughter’s diaries and Sato’s letters. Hideo has no memories of his life before the bombing. He has no stories to share with Amaterasu to convince her he is, indeed, her grandson. She refuses to consider the possibility, yet she meets with Hideo on multiple occasions.

Copleton begins each chapter with an explanation of some aspect of Japanese culture. This is both interesting and helpful in trying to understand Amaterasu’s mindset. She is old and alone following the death of her husband of many years. They left Japan long before in a hopeless effort to try to forget their losses.

Hideo’s fortitude and patience are tested in his efforts to convince Amaterasu of their connection and she must consider her past relationships.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Three-and three-quarter bookmarks
Penguin Books 2015
292 pages

The Price of Knowledge   Leave a comment

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Educated by Tara Westover is one of the most emotionally difficult books I’ve read, but I couldn’t put it down.

The memoir recounts Westover’s journey as the daughter of survivalists in rural Idaho. The government was never to be trusted, neither were doctors or teachers. She never attended school; to say her mother’s efforts at homeschooling fell short is, at best, an understatement. Although hospital care was necessary a few times, the family relied on her mother’s knowledge of herbs.

For much of her life, Westover never questioned her family’s lifestyle. She had no basis for comparison. This isn’t the only aspect making this a challenging book. It was the physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her brother, Shawn. Her parents offered no protection.

Yet, Westover teaches herself how to study and pass the ACT with a score high enough to get accepted into Brigham Young University. From there she studies at Cambridge and Harvard universities, eventually earning a doctorate degree in history from Cambridge.

This is a gritty, heart-breaking narrative and Westover’s self-realization comes with a high price: she must either renounce her education or her family. When she refuses to give in to her parents demands, she is disowned, shunned by her most of her family. Her father’s fervent interpretation of the Bible doesn’t include anything close to acceptance or unconditional love.

Westover’s education extends beyond books and lectures. Her story reflects how much she gained once out of her family’s shadow and what she lost.

Educated
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Random House, 2018
322 pages

Revelations of a Priest’s Daughter   Leave a comment

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There is something both intriguing and off-putting about the title of Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. Greg, her father was, indeed, a priest in the Catholic Church. This was possible, she writes because her father “snuck past” the rule prohibiting priests from marrying. The real loophole is that a married minister of another denomination can, apparently, seek dispensation from Rome to be ordained as a priest. Pope Benedict XVI approved the request. Father Greg didn’t have to annul his marriage, nor abandon his children. Although, in many ways, as evident in the family stories Lockwood shares, he did.

The author’s tone is humorous and irony is evident throughout. Yet, there is too much cleverness. Her dad’s faith is never depicted as having much depth. Perhaps it is her effort to reveal him as an ordinary, not a holy, man. Even in that regard, he is far from conventional. After all, he lounges around in his boxers and has an extensive (and expensive) guitar collection. In fact he purchases a rare guitar soon after telling his daughter there aren’t funds for her college education.

Despite the title, Lockwood doesn’t focus her attention entirely on her dad. Her mother, her sisters, nieces, nephews and her husband also have prominent places in the narrative. So does a seminarian, who isn’t married and likely does not have kids.

Lockwood is, in fact, a published, award-winning poet. The images and emotions she conveys are vivid, but her often self-mocking tone and airing family laundry quickly wear thin.

Priestdaddy
Three Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
333 pages

Posted October 21, 2018 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews

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