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Archive for the ‘friendship’ Tag

Love and the Passage of Time   Leave a comment

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An American Marriage is about the institution of matrimony and race in America. Author Tayari Jones introduces readers to Celestial and Roy as each provides their perspectives on their relationship from its early stages to the circumstances that shake its foundation.

Roy’s a country boy with grand aspirations who left rural Louisiana at his first opportunity; Celestial is an artist born and raised in Atlanta. She could be considered haughty, just as he could be seen as arrogant in his drive to move far beyond his roots. Yet, Celestial is the more appealing character of the two. She’s intelligent, independent and creative. There’s just something about Roy that makes him less sympathetic.

This is true even after he is sentenced to serve a 12-year prison term for a crime he did not commit. During his incarceration, the narrative is told through the couple’s exchange of letters. Initially, their correspondence is warm, loving, a continuation of their previous life together. Slowly, the letters become less personal, more terse and infrequent.

The other significant character is Andre, literally the boy next door; Celestial has known him all her life. They have always been close friends and it was Andre who introduced her to Roy.

One year quickly becomes five. Life moves forward for all concerned through professional success, a death and realizations about the past. Following an early release, Roy hopes the passage of time hasn’t completely removed him from Celestial’s world. All are left to wonder what future their marriage holds.

An American Marriage
Three and three-quarter bookmarks
Algonquin Books, 2018
306 pages

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Not So Neighborly   Leave a comment

The Woman Next Door

The title of Yewande Omotoso’s novel The Woman Next Door is pleasantly ambiguous. There are actually two women living next door to one another with much more than a property line separating them.

Both women are older widows, had impressive careers; one is white and the other black. The setting is suburban Cape Town, South Africa. Neither is happy and each covets something the other has. Despite these similarities they are barely civil to one another.

Of the two, Hortensia is the most acerbic, although Marion is only slightly less prickly. The interactions between them are exercises in seeing who can sling the deepest barb. Marion is not Hortensia’s only victim; her caustic manner assumes an equal opportunity approach. Hortensia might as well wear a t-short with a warning label: stay out of my way.

In a well-paced style, the author reveals the women’s past which helps explain their attitudes toward each other and the world. An accident forces the pair together, but the situation is far from amicable. Even though it is Hortensia who offers the first semblance of a peace offering, it’s evident the gesture has ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Marion’s efforts to extend an olive branch appear more genuine.

Omotoso’s writing is vivid and engaging. The story begs an answer to the questions of Hortensia’s universal dislike of people and Marion’s general unhappiness.

At the risk of needing a spoiler alert, the ending is the weakest element of the narrative. However, overall it’s poignant on many levels.

The Woman Next Door
Four Bookmarks
Picador, 2016
278 pages

Growing Old With Attitude   Leave a comment

No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside

Imagine Bridget Jones at age 60 and you’ll have a good idea of Marie Sharp, the narrator of the terribly-titled No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Ironically, I received this apty subtitled paperback – “Diary of a 6oth year” – at my own book club’s holiday gift exchange. Rest assured, I have no intention of leaving my book group!

Author Virginia Ironside tells Marie’s story through diary entries. Marie is a no-nonsense woman about to turn 60; she has no qualms about doing so. Rather, she embraces the idea of the milestone birthday as a rite of passage which will allow her to do as she pleases rather than striving to meet expectations held by others. In the process she has decided to give up men and focus on a few close friendships. She vows not to do anything she doesn’t want to, in addition to avoiding book clubs this includes joining a gym and learning Italian.

Marie is a former art teacher, divorcee, the mother of a grown son and has several good friends. References to her carefree days in the 1960s indicate she hasn’t spent her life as a stick-in-the-mud.

Ironside injects plenty of humor among several poignant observations. Predictably, Marie experiences the cycle of life and plenty of surprises during the 18 months of entries she shares. She is, perhaps, most surprised by the depth of emotion she has for her newborn grandson. Despite her vow of no romantic liaisons, it’s possible that door may not be completely barricaded.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Plume Books, 2008
231 pages

Art Inspires Art   2 comments

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Author Christina Baker Kline brings “Christina’s World,” the painting by Andrew Wyeth, to life in her novel, A Piece of the World.

Kline blends reality with imagination as she recounts Christina Olson’s life, the woman who provided friendship, hospitality and inspiration to the young artist. It begins in 1939 when Christina first meets Wyeth. The story is also told in flashbacks to the late 1800s when as a young child she’s stricken with a neurological disorder that affects her legs and hands. The story chronologically alternates between each time period: the former illustrates the relationship between Christina and Wyeth; the latter tells of her life and family history. Christina and her brother, Al, live in the house in which they were born. It’s been in the family since the mid-1700s.

Christina’s existence is full of hardships and disappointments. Kline’s portrait of her subject doesn’t gloss over the hardscrabble difficulties of living on a remote farm near a small coastal town in Maine. The descriptions are vivid and at times painful as Christina’s dreams are repeatedly cast aside. Yet, she is not a character who evokes pity. She is strong-willed and often frustratingly stubborn.

Wyeth’s character is more of a supporting character. For 20 years he comes and goes in the summer months using the Olson house as his studio while bringing Christina out of her past and her reclusive ways.

In addition to the rich images of the landscape and people, Kline’s fusion of fact and fiction is creative and engaging.

A Piece of The World
Four Bookmarks
William Morrow Publishers, 2017
310 pages

 

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

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