Archive for the ‘family’ Tag

Battling Through Life’s Struggles   Leave a comment

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Fight Night by Miriam Toews may sound like a mob meet up, which is true if you consider nine-year-old Swiv, her mother Mooshie and grandmother Elvira to be a gang. They do, indeed, fight. Not each other, but the past and world around them.

Swiv is clever and funny, but she’s just a kid – still in single digits. She’s been suspended from school (for fighting), so Elvira creates an innovative educational curriculum. This includes subjects, among others, such as letter writing, life sciences and “Ancient History,” about Elvira’s childhood.

Swiv and her grandmother are close. They spend their days together in close proximity where Swiv is largely a caregiver to the older woman. Still, Elvira is wise and joyful. She has a love of life that endears her to everyone she meets, much to Swiv’s dismay.

Mooshie is in the trimester of her pregnancy. She’s an actress with a Toronto theatre troupe and is portrayed as a woman on the edge. Swiv’s father is absent, something Elvira eventually explains to Swiv. Among the writing assignments for Swiv is to pen a letter to him keeping him up to date on her life. Mooshie and Elvira are also tasked with writing letters: theirs to the unborn child.

Toews portrays the small family as determined and prepared to face their demons. The deaths of Swiv’s aunt and grandfather by suicide nearly paralyzed Mooshie emotionally.  This leaves Elvira to keep the family together, despite her failing health. Consequently, Swiv grows up far too fast.

Fight Night

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021

251 pages

Binge reading   Leave a comment

I finally did it: binged on three* Louise Penny novels back to back. There’s still another to read, but since it isn’t on my nightstand (per my New Year’s Books Resolution), it has to wait.

Most readers I know are fans of the Inspector Armand Gamache series. To those few who admit to me they aren’t, we can still be friends; although, I am disappointed.

Nonetheless, I’ll focus on All the Devils are Here, which allows me to also highlight what I enjoy so much about Penny’s work: the relatable characters, the descriptions (and significance) of settings, and, of course, the mystery to be solved. Unlike most of the previous novels, this one is set in Paris, with brief references to Three Pines, the small, tight-knit community in rural Quebec.  I was initially disappointed the usual cast of characters (residents of Three Pines) was relegated to barely-existent roles. Yet, Paris is, after all, a magical place, which comes to life through the author’s vivid imagery of people, sites and food – lots of food.

In addition to the mystery at hand, are several back stories: Armand’s relationship with his estranged son Daniel; the imminent birth of his granddaughter; and his memories of visiting the City of Lights.

Suspicions abound as Gamache works to discover who tried to kill his godfather. The inspector encounters corporate espionage, corrupt police and rumors involving the French Resistance. It’s an intriguing combination. This and the benevolent qualities of her main character are what Penny does best.

All the Devils are Here

Four Bookmarks

Minotaur Books, 2020

439 pages

*Kingdom of the Blind

A Better Man

All the Devils are Here

Food Joys   Leave a comment

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I’ve seen a lot of Stanley Tucci’s movies; of his many screen appearances, my two favorites are Big Night and the television series Searching for Italy. His memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food, reflects both.

Beginning with his childhood and Italian family background, he recalls school lunches, weeknight dinners and holiday get-togethers with equal enthusiasm and vivid descriptions. He also includes occasional recipes.

Tucci moves through the different phases of his life: his early acting days augmented by waiting tables, his relationship and love for his late wife, his success as an actor, remarrying, movie sets and how food is such an integral part of it all.

Humor, mixed with heartfelt emotion, a little snobbery and his enjoyment of a good stiff drink fill the pages. His writing voice is distinct. Its cadence evokes memories of the TV series wherein he visits different parts of Italy identifying the unique foods of each region.

The memoir is not without plenty of name dropping, something Tucci acknowledges. Yes, he’s acted with numerous well-known celebrities, but it’s the many shared meals themselves that breed envy – even if all of the food isn’t delicious … although most of it is.

Tucci isn’t just a dining connoisseur; he recounts his enjoyment of cooking, which includes planning, shopping, preparing and serving. Whether describing the catering on movie sets or meals with his children, parents and wife (or fellow actors and friends), Tucci clearly acknowledges an appreciation not only for good food, but the community it creates.

Taste: My Life Through Food

Four Bookmarks

Gallery Books, 2021

291 Pages

Checking Out Life’s Choices   Leave a comment

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The Midnight Library is a point between life and death rather than a repository for books. The premise of Matt Haig’s novel is based on life choices with all of its regrets and often overlooked joys. Some decisions are major and others less so, but all have an impact. This is not a duh discovery, though. Instead, Haig offers, through Nora Seed, the opportunity to experience parts of her unchosen lives until she finds the one she’s actually meant to live.

Depressed, alone and uninspired, Nora decides she’s better off dead.  Immediately following her suicide attempt, she finds herself at the Midnight Library which her high school librarian oversees. There are no other patrons and all of the shelves contain books about the different paths Nora might have taken based on her actual family, interests and relationships.

Thinking about the literal road not taken (yes, Frost’s poem is referenced) is engaging. There’s an element of mystery as Nora opens one book after another while trying to the find the right life. Although she considers many, time is running out. Nora needs to make a decision before her death becomes a point of no return.

Nora’s successes and pitfalls involve the usual: love, friends, family and career choices. With each book she opens, Nora learns more about herself and the world around her. There’s a sense of Ebenezer Scrooge’s experience here. Nora gets a wake-up call regarding her life, which, as it turns out, isn’t such a bad thing for anyone

 The Midnight Library

Four Bookmarks     

Viking, 2020

288 pages                                                                                                                          

Exploring the Familiar and the New   1 comment

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I knew a couple who, after becoming empty nesters, announced they now live in “Naked City.” I appreciated this for its literal and figurative meanings. Not only could bodies be bare, so could parental responsibilities (of course, these never fully disappear, only their dominance over daily life).  For many couples the milestone raises the question: what next?

Kim Brown Seely addresses this in Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another. I learned about it from a friend’s podcast, nuWriters. The hosts discussed the book one week and interviewed Seely the next. Both episodes intrigued me. Seely shares the emotions associated with a new phase of life with honesty and humor, she also provides vivid descriptions of the journey she and her husband, Jeff, undertook aboard a 54-foot sailboat through the Salish Sea and Inside Passage to the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Seelys are successful professionals, married for nearly 30 years when their two sons are both soon to be in college; their youngest as a freshman. As if launching him isn’t enough of a new experience, they magnify it by embarking on a sailing expedition, which serves multiple purposes including to reconnect as a couple and to seek the elusive white bear (known as the spirit bear).

Although her husband had some sailing experience, Seely did not. This doesn’t deter them, and the two learn to, literally, navigate together. It’s not always easy, but even as their relationship is stretched, so does it become stronger.

Unchartered: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Net Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another

Four Bookmarks

Sasquatch Books, 2019

275 pages

In Plain View   Leave a comment

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The lies we tell ourselves, and others, to create new lives is the theme of The Vanishing HalfBrit Bennett’s novel addresses several timely issues including racism, sexism, privilege and gender identity. These are daunting points to undertake, but Bennett, without diminishing their importance, imbues the narrative with compassion and wonder.

At its heart, this is about twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who, as teenagers, ran away from home: a small, rural community of fair-skinned Blacks. The story tracks their lives as they eventually take separate paths, both figuratively and literally. Desiree returns home with Jude, her  young, very dark daughter in tow;  Stella passes herself as white, marries, moves to an exclusive area in Los Angeles and constantly worries she’ll be exposed.

The emphasis on Jude’s blackness drives the uncommon, perhaps unpopular, notion racism is only something whites project to nonwhites. Within her own, albeit pale, Black town, Jude’s been shunned since the day she arrived. Despite this, she doesn’t see herself as a victim and hers is the most engaging subplot within the novel thanks to those she interacts with most.

Although some stereotypes exist, most of Bennett’s characters are well-defined.  This goes beyond physical descriptions, but includes their joys, heartbreaks and deep emotions.

The settings change but the most important action occurs in the rural south and Los Angeles. Incorporating different locales makes it easy to see problems aren’t restricted to geographic regions. And, lies travel easily from one place to another.

The Vanishing Half

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Riverhead Books, 2020

343 pages

Studying for Citizenship   4 comments

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My grandmother came to the United States with her mother, two older sisters and younger brother when she was a young teen. I don’t know much about what her life was like when she arrived. I do know she was particularly proud when she became an U.S. citizen.

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I always thought she obtained her citizenship soon after her arrival. It turns out it was much later: when my mother was in high school. My mom said she drove her mother to the night classes. Other times during the week the two would study; each doing her homework as a means of reaching something better. My mom went on to be the first in her family to not only earn a bachelor’s degree, but also a master’s and doctorate. Her mom studied for the opportunity to enjoy the rights associated with being a citizen of the United States.

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For many years my grandmother believed she was already a citizen because of her residency and marriage to my Grandfather. That proved not to be the case. Apparently, some things never change. One of our daughters-in-law is from Mexico. After marrying my son the process of her obtaining a resident visa was daunting, expensive and timely. She hasn’t even begun the journey toward citizenship. That’s another story.

Even though I wasn’t around when it happened, I do know becoming a citizen was something my Grandmother was extremely proud of. I remember her talking about it every election knowing she had a voice in democracy.

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I suspect, based on the book she used to study, she was more well versed in the U.S. Constitution than most people born in this country. She never took the right to vote lightly. I can only hope this is true of people in this, the 2020, election.

Finding One’s Place   Leave a comment

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A Long Petal of the Sea – the title of Isabel Allende’s new novel, refers to Pablo Neruda’s poem describing Chile. It’s an absorbing story about love, country and belonging.

When introduced, Roser is a young shepherd girl with an impressive ear for music. This provides opportunities far beyond expectations – including an education leading to a music scholarship at university in Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War is well underway.

Roser falls in love with the younger son of her music mentor, but it’s the older son, Victor, with whom she spends most of her life. From Spain, Roser and Victor arrive in France separately as refugees. They reconnect and, with the onset of World War II, realize they need to leave Europe and seek passage to Chile. Naruda led the charge getting Spanish refugees to his country. However, Roser and Victor must marry in order to travel together. What begins as a marriage of convenience slowly evolves into something much deeper.

 As they settle into their new lives in Santiago, Roser pursues her music career and establishes a name for herself in South America.  Victor continues his medical studies and becomes a doctor. He also has a brief liaison with the daughter of an upper class family.

Each chapter begins with a verse from a Naruda poem. The narrative moves through civil unrest in Chile, moments of professional success, parenting, another exile and love. Allende makes it clear, belonging is not just fitting into a place, but being with the right person.

A Long Petal of the Sea

Four Bookmarks

Ballantine Books, 2020

314 pages

Traveling Through Grief   Leave a comment

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward made me cry – multiple times with sad and happy tears, and (spoiler alert) not only at the end. Ann Napolitano has crafted a moving novel about loss, survival and choices.

Eddie Adler is 12 years old when he boards a Los Angeles-bound flight from New Jersey with his older brother Jordan and their parents. He’s the only survivor when the plane crashes; thereafter he’s known as Edward.

Alternating between Edward’s recovery over the span of three years, are chapters chronicling the flight ranging from the mundane (seating arrangements and in-flight meals) to the captivating (vivid descriptions of some passengers and conversations).

Although he survived, Edward is emotionally broken. He was close to his parents and Jordan, only three years older. He moves in with his maternal aunt and uncle. All grieve their losses.

The personalities of a few passengers are richly portrayed. The more the author invests in their development, the harder it is to accept knowing they die in the crash.

Edward develops a connection with Shay, the no-nonsense girl next door. She has a history of being on the fringe with her peers, which is where Edward finds himself; as a survivor he’s an oddity. Their friendship is a thing of beauty. Many challenge Edward’s reluctance to move forward, but Shay is the most consistent.

His discovery of a cache of letters written after the accident provides glimpses of his fellow passengers, the good and bad of human nature, and reasons to look ahead.

Dear Edward
Five Bookmarks
The Dial Press, 2020
340 pages

The Breakdown of a Family   Leave a comment

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It wasn’t a single element of Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker that captured my attention. There’s the Colorado Springs* setting; a family with 12 children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia; and the nature vs nurture argument. Ultimately, all of the above held my interest.

First, it’s difficult to image a family with 12 kids; it’s mind boggling. Like most parents, Mimi and Don Galvin excelled in some areas and failed in others. Their first 10 children were boys; neither of the two youngest, Margaret and Mary (aka Lindsey), suffered from mental illness. They were, however, the victims of parental benign neglect and abuse from their brothers. The parents were successful at falconry, but their parenting techniques left much to be desired.

Don was often away on business. First when in the military and later in the private sector. He was only peripherally involved in family life. When issues arose, his attitude was a reflection of the times: boys will be boys. Mimi was left to sort out problems, and her approach was to project a glossier image than the facts portrayed.

Eventually, Mimi’s aversion to facing truths gives way to an inordinate amount of time dealing with physicians, clinics, medications and averting blame. Descriptions of the physical battles among brothers, the inability to accept what was happening to the family and the impact on the healthy children are harrowing.

Along with the Galvin family experience, Kolker details the medical community’s evolving response to schizophrenia through the years.

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
Four Bookmarks
Doubleday, 2020
377 pages, includes notes and index

*I live in Colorado Springs.