Archive for the ‘family’ Tag

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.

A Daughter of the Kitchen   1 comment

Always Home: A Daughter's Recipes & Stories by Fanny Singer

Always Home by Fanny Singer is a beautifully-written homage to her childhood as the daughter of renowned chef and food activist, Alice Waters. The inspired black and white photos and recipes are a bonus.

Singer was born after Chez Panisse opened its doors. The Berkeley restaurant, at the forefront of using locally-grown, organic ingredients, is where California cuisine and Waters garnered international attention. The book reveals as much about Waters as the author; it creates a sense of envy at their lifestyle. Not only because of the food prepared and eaten, but their travel experiences. Summers in the south of France, vacations in Italy and Mexico are vividly rendered through descriptions of the landscapes, along with meals and those with whom they were shared.

Yes, Singer is close to her mother but Waters isn’t the only influence on this accomplished writer. A host of honorary aunts, uncles, grandparents and those with direct connections to the restaurant, considered “La Famille Panisse,” fill the pages in much the same way they contribute to Singer’s life.

Each chapter is filled with humor – some self-deprecating. While this might be considered a memoir, it flows more organically, as if Singer is having a conversation with the reader. Her memories are recounted in no specific, chronological order as vignettes: a Christmas here or school trip there. The result is an engaging and fun read.

Brigitte Lacombe’s photographs enhance the pages. Consequently, a coffee table seems a better place than a bookshelf for showing off this work.

Always Home
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2020
317 pages

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages

Home and House Aren’t Synonymous   Leave a comment

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If Ann Patchett is the author, I know it’s a book I want to read. The Dutch House, her latest, was no exception and I feel rewarded for being a fan.

Danny and Maeve Conroy are siblings living in a massive estate in a Philadelphia suburb with their father, housekeeper and cook. Mrs. Conroy abandoned the family years ago, leaving Danny, who is much younger than his sister, with little to no memory of his mother. Maeve assumed the role of caretaker for her brother. Their emotionally distant father made his money as a real estate developer. When he begins to date and eventually remarries, everyone’s circumstances change.

The novel focuses on the influence of the house on Danny and Maeve’s lives as they go from its well-to-do residents to finding their own place in the world. In fact, the house is an obsession; through the years the pair visit it from a distance while parked on the street.

Patchett’s characters are interesting with quirks and personalities making them come alive in the reader’s mind. She provides their backstories, including one for the house with an unusual history, including how it got its name.

The close relationship between Danny and Maeve drives the narrative through five decades with The Dutch House metaphorically always in view. There’s a one-upon-a-time sense to the novel, complete with an evil stepmother. However, this is a sophisticated, touching look at the importance of a caring family, even if it’s just a family of two.

The Dutch House
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2019
337 pages

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