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Archive for the ‘friendships’ Tag

Growing Relationships   Leave a comment

 

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Hive-Mind by Gabrielle Myers is labeled a memoir, but it’s slightly more than that. Written in diary-like form, Myers describes her summer of 2006 on a farm in Northern California. This is no kiddie account, though. While it’s the focus of her narrative, Myers alternates the chronicle with a look back to her relationship with her mother and growing up in Virginia. As if this isn’t enough, she also includes poetry.

It’s evident that sharing the earlier memories is cathartic; this is true of the latter ones, but is less obvious until the end. Myers’s descriptions of life on the farm, from early spring to late September, are vivid and stunning. I can practically feel dirt stuck in my fingernails as she, Baker (also working on the farm) and Farmer (the woman who owns the land and decides the daily chores) sow and weed and sweat and harvest. The author is also impressive in describing meals prepared from food on the farm.

Farmer is an enigma. This may be Myers’s point: Farmer never reveals enough about herself to know who she is.  Myers shares her own thoughts and reactions, but that isn’t enough to make Farmer compelling. Baker is an open book and, consequently, is more interesting.

Myers isn’t writing about coming of age, but of becoming aware. This is evident as she connects the different phases in her life following a 1995 conversation with her mother: “… how I feel can become how someone else feels.”

Hive-Mind
Three and three-quarter Bookmarks
Lisa Hagen books, 2015
299 pages

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Microscopic and Grand   2 comments

“The Signature of All Things”

For a minute forget that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love. It may take a little longer, but the idea is to not let this dissuade you from reading The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s novel is as different from her memoir as ice milk is from ice cream. The latter is much richer and nuanced; it’s worth every moment of guilty pleasure spent under its grip.

Gilbert transports the reader from London, across the seas (on multiple occasions), and to Tahiti and Amsterdam. Philadelphia provides the lengthiest setting where the brilliant, unattractive Alma Whitaker is introduced to the world: her birth is literally the first sentence of this epic narrative. In Gilbert’s words, Alma’s childhood “was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting …” Thus, the focus turns, albeit temporarily, to Alma’s father, Henry Whitaker.

Henry stole his way out of poverty. He didn’t just acquire wealth, he attained knowledge and became a leading botanist and businessman. Alma’s mother, a stoic and harsh parent intent on fortifying her daughter’s intellect, also possessed a great mind and interest in botany.

Through humor, interesting botanical descriptions and strong, insightful characters, Gilbert creates a story that not only spans continents, but also scientific ideas along with notions regarding love and relationships. The vivid imagery of the various landscapes is a bonus.

Alma is a passionate character rich in curiosity (and foibles). Yet, despite the limits placed on her gender, she explores life in miniscule proportions and unexpectedly reveals its grand scale.

The Signature of All Things
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Viking, 2013
499 pages

An Indie Read   3 comments

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Writers who pay to have their books published often go through the wringer when it comes to perceptions. Such efforts were once identified as vanity-pressed or self-published. Now the preferred term is indie, or independent, publishing. Some indies are poorly constructed, rife with grammatical errors and simply uninteresting; yet many are well-written including Summoning the Strength by Stephanie Briggs. She  manages to avoid those most frequent missteps. In fact, she’s really only guilty of not calling on her own strengths, which are plentiful, when it comes to writing.

At 169 pages, Briggs’s novel is all-too brief to accommodate the numerous characters. The account follows Katherine, a small-town girl who endures a disastrous marriage to a wealthy man. She’s interesting and has an especially strong relationship with her mother, which unfortunately, just withers.

Katherine’s unhappiness is tangible because Briggs tells the story in retrospect. However, the explanation for the discontent is one-dimensional. The husband’s a jerk and Katherine’s an intelligent woman too blind to see the obvious.

One problem is the large number of long-lasting friendships Katherine has from her childhood and college days. It’s clear the author appreciates the importance of women’s friendships. However, here’s an instance when having more isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Briggs’s prose is engaging and descriptive, but she could have easily created fuller (and fewer) characters for a richer story. I’ve come to enjoy Briggs’s writing through her blog, Honie Briggs. It’s smart, humorous and meaningful. I suspect her next book will be, too.

Summoning the Strength
Three bookmarks
Briggs& Briggs, 2011
169 pages

More Than a Matter of Manners   Leave a comment

Rules

Rules of Civility might sound like an oxymoron today, but author Amor Towles has crafted an engaging novel set in 1938 about social mores that provides plenty to contemplate now.

Katey Kontent (as in the adjective, not the noun) is the narrator whose memory is jarred at an art exhibit in 1966 which takes her back to that one eventful year and the cast of characters who filled it. Katey is a lively, intelligent 25-year-old trying to survive in New York City. A chance encounter on New Year’s Eve 1937 sets the stage for her friendships, romantic relationships, disappointments and her career.

Towles evokes a lively, and noir-ish, portrait of New York City where martinis, jazz and social status dictate. He does so with humor and emotion. Katey works in a secretarial pool in a large financial firm, but her interests lie elsewhere. No sooner is she promoted then she quits to work for an editor past his prime: “He stopped taking on projects and watched with quiet reserve as his authors died off one by one – at peace with the notion that he would join them soon enough in that circle of Elysium reserved for plot and substance and the judicious use of the semicolon.”

Plot and substance are the stuff of Towles writing, which focuses on Katey’s relationship with Tinker Grey, a dashing banker of means. Through Tinker, she has access to upper society, although, as is often the case, appearances in any circle aren’t always what they appear.

Rules of Civility
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Penguin Books, 2011
335 pages, which includes The Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation

Irish Storytelling   Leave a comment

weekinwinter

I’m a sucker for a Maeve Binchy novel. Yeah, I know her books are predictable, mushy and fast reads, but she gets me every time. Say what you will, Binchy is a marvelous story teller, and I was saddened to learn she died last summer. A Week in Winter was published posthumously.

Her last work has the requisite characters: independent women who are misled by handsome but unreliable men; ne’er do well young men who, despite the odds, turn their lives around; well-meaning parents who misunderstand their adult children; and, well, many more. For the most part, they are all quite lovely — young and old alike.

Chicky Starr left her family home on Ireland’s west coast as a young twenty-something, only to return some 20-plus years later to renovate an old mansion overlooking the sea as a hotel. Each of the book’s chapters focuses on a different character, while continuing the thread established in getting the hotel ready for guests. Of course, the guests figure prominently in the story. A few names from some of Binchy’s other works find their way into A Week in Winter, which only makes sense: Ireland is not that large a country.

Family relationships, friendships and learning to navigate life are the themes Binchy weaves into her novels; and the Irish landscape is always as important as its inhabitants in her hands.

Binchy has authored 22 books, of which two are nonfiction; I’m glad there are still several I have yet to read.

A Week in Winter
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
326 pages

Midlife Journeys — A Memoir   Leave a comment

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Living Out Answers – Twelve Trips of a Lifetime by Dave Jackson, is one of two indie books I recently read for pleasure (others I read for one of my few paid writing gigs). In the interest of full disclosure: I almost know the author. We’ve never met, but Jackson’s the father of a good friend who gave me the book as a gift.

This is a memoir based on trips, yup 12 of them, that he began taking when he turned 50 in 1979. He kept journals of the adventures which are the book’s foundation supplemented by recent afterthoughts. The trips include finding a way to spend time on the Mississippi River, to working for a circus, to learning about coal mines in West Virginia, along with nine others. He hitchhiked, hopped trains, hiked, rode in the cabs of big rigs and developed sea legs on boats.

Nearly as interesting is how the book evolved: Jackson’s granddaughter was prompted by a photo which led to discussions about the travels. Others entered the picture offering advice and encouragement. Although the book became a family endeavor of sorts, the stories are Jackson’s.

Jackson embraced the new opportunities and experiences no matter how exciting, frustrating or unpleasant, but there was always the safety net of a comfortable lifestyle awaiting him after each exploit. What’s most impressive is that Jackson made these journeys at a point in his life where many think self-reflection is either unnecessary or inconvenient. He demonstrates neither is the case.


Living Out Answers – Twelve Trips of a Lifetime

Three and a half bookmarks
Brokey’s, 2012
281 pages