Archive for the ‘friendship’ Tag

A Different Mother and Son Reunion   Leave a comment

 

The NixSomebody get Nathan Hill an editor! The author of The Nix is creative, daring and has a good – no excellent – story to tell. The problem is that it’s about 250 pages too long, including an 11-page sentence. Really?!

Moving back an fourth between a tumultuous Chicago in 1968 just before the Democratic national convention and a calmer 2011, the novel ‘s focus is on the relationship between Samuel Andresen-Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye. It’s been decades since he last saw her. When Samuel was a child, Faye abandoned him and her husband.

Samuel teaches literature at a Chicago university. His heart isn’t in his work; his students are neither inspired, nor inspiring. After hours, on his faculty computer, he plays an immersive video game. He is also 10 years behind on a book that he’s been contracted to write. Samuel is a likeable guy and it’s painful to consider him a loser. But.

Hill is at his best in his descriptions of Samuel’s childhood, before his mother left. It’s vivid, engaging and explains so much about this character. Equally engrossing are the sections about Faye’s youth in a rural town in Iowa.

Less appealing are some of the other characters and situations, if only because the depth of their portrayal is extraneous. Take the sentence that is a chapter unto itself. It chronicles the symptom-by-symptom, reaction-by-reaction experience of a compulsive gamer as his body shuts down.

Ultimately, all the reader, like Samuel, wants is to understand why Faye left.

The Nix
Almost Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
620 pages

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The American Frontier   Leave a comment

 

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Years ago I gave myself permission to stop reading books that couldn’t hold my interest. Nonetheless, I still struggle with the idea that once I start something I should finish it. As I slogged my way through Amy Bloom’s Away, I wondered when I’d set it down for good. I never did.

Bloom’s slow-paced story is about the determination of a mother’s love and the sacrifices she endures. It’s also a narrative about immigrants and fitting into not just new environments but adjusting to different customs and expectations.

Lillian Leyb is a seamstress living in New York City’s lower east end in 1924. As she becomes romantically entangled with her employer and his son, her past is slowly revealed. She left Russia where her husband and, presumably, her child were killed. Lillian becomes a kept woman until she learns from her cousin, a recent arrival from the homeland, that her daughter is still alive. Thus begins Lillian’s journey across the  United States including the expansive Alaskan frontier en route to Siberia to find her daughter.

Lillian experiences both the kindness and cruelty of strangers; she’s befriended and betrayed. Bloom incorporates humor and pathos in Lillian’s trek by explaining what’s in store for those Lillian encounters – from her east end companions to those in a Seattle brothel and later a women’s prison in Alaska. Through it all, Lillian remains determined to find her daughter.

Although Away was no page-turner for me, I’m glad I stuck with it. It just took time.

Away
Three Bookmarks
Random House, 2008
240 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

A Little Life, A Lotta Book   Leave a comment

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To say A Little Life is a big book is an understatement. At slightly more than 800 pages it’s, in the words of my greatest presidential fear: Huge, very, very huge. Hanya Yanagihara has crafted a novel that traverses several lives, particularly Jude St. Francis’s. The name is not insignificant. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.

Jude is one of a quartet of friends, Willem, Malcomb and JB, who meet in college. Although the friendships among the four are always part of the story, most of the narrative revolves around Jude and Willem. Their backstories, their lives before college, define them. In fact, Jude’s past is what drives the novel.

From the onset, it’s clear that Jude has secrets. His inability to reveal them is a compelling, and often frustrating, element. It is also evident that Jude is the physically weakest of the foursome. He walks with a limp, which he reluctantly and vaguely attributes to a car accident. He has no family or past connections. He’s awed by the care and companionship of his friends.

Yet, little by little Jude’s history is divulged. As the four men grow older their friendship is often tested. They each pursue different careers, but Jude and Willem remain particularly close throughout.

The power of Yanagihara’s work lies in the personalities and the situations she creates. The author illustrates the definition of friendship through the actions of the characters and shows that the strongest bonds are made of trust. Then love.

A Little Life
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Anchor Books, 2016
816 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

Four’s a Crowd   Leave a comment

I was baffled by Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James. It’s sweet but confusing. It’s a love story that considers lost chances and perhaps poor decisions. It’s also surprisingly descriptive in its brevity.

Etta is 83 years old when she embarks on a trek across Canada to the ocean. The five-sentence letter she leaves as explanation to her husband sets the tone for the novel: “Otto, I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.”

This isn’t the kind of thing she’s planned, she simply leaves to see the coast. Briefly, Otto considers trying to find her. Ultimately, it’s Russell who does so, while Otto remains on the farm.

Along her trek, Etta gains unwanted attention from the media and towns people she encounters. She also acquires a companion in James, a source of bewilderment.

The relationships among the four title characters are complex. Otto and Russell have known each other since childhood. Both love Etta. Hooper develops the bond between Etta and Otto through letters the pair exchanged during the war. Their correspondence evolves from the mundane to the heartfelt.

Hooper intersperses the characters’ backstories with their present day adventures: Etta bound for the sea, Russell in search of Etta and Otto discovering daily rhythms on his own. Meanwhile, there’s James, who’s difficult to describe. Hooper has crafted a terse novel unpredictably rich with humor and longing.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Almost Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
305 pages

An Allende Misstep   Leave a comment

Isabel Allende is among my favorite authors. I am reminded of how I feel about my kids: I love them even though they sometimes do things I don’t always like. Allende’s most recent novel, The Japanese Lover, is like that.

The story involves too many secrets, predictable plot lines and cardboard characters. Alma Belasco, a woman of means in her 80s, moves into Lark House, an unconventional nursing home. There she meets 23-year-old care-giver, Irina Bazili. The two bond, and soon Irina is helping Alma’s grandson, Seth, work on a book about Alma and the Belasco family history.

Of course, Irina has a past about which little is revealed, but Alma has secrets, too. As Seth and Irina learn more about Alma, it’s apparent there’s a lost love. Yawn. The younger couple believes the romance is still going strong, although this is all based on speculation.

There was, in fact, a lover. He started out as the youngest son of the Belasco family’s Japanese gardener and Alma’s childhood best friend. One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is when Ichimei and his family are uprooted from their San Francisco home and relocated, with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, to an internment camp.

Given his role as title character, Ichimei is one-dimensional. Even Alma could have been so much more – especially in Allende’s hands. Alas, this is one of those books I didn’t like much; nonetheless, I look forward to the author’s next work.

The Japanese Lover
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2015
322 pages