Archive for the ‘humor’ 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

Ageless Friendship   Leave a comment

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot: A Novel: Cronin, Marianne:  9780063017504: Amazon.com: Books

The 100 Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin is about the sustaining and enduring power of friendship. Lenni is the 17-year-old narrator hospitalized with “life-limiting” cancer –  usually referred to as terminal. She meets 83-year-old Margot and an immediate bond is formed. Between them is a 100-year-old life.

Lenni’s acerbic, insightful humor is beyond her age. This isn’t a criticism; it makes sense given her situation. She’s a no-nonsense teen who doesn’t get to live the life of a healthy teenager. She still manages to sling attitude, though. Yet, she makes the most of her situation: she’s curious, so she meets with the hospital chaplain; she creative, so she has the idea to collaborate with Margot to share their life stories through art. Each painting is associated with a particular and significant situation, which they reveal to each other. The result, besides bringing them closer, is a compelling narrative rich with life’s joys and sorrows.

Lenni’s parents never visit, which is eventually explained. Whether intentional or not, Lenni creates her own family within the hospital. Father Arthur, New Nurse , Paul the Porter, the Temp and Pippa the art teacher are those with whom she has meaningful relationships.

Cronin’s characters are vividly portrayed. The novel is both heartwarming and heart wrenching. After all, the word terminal is stated on page one. The friendship with Margot transcends age. Although Lenni will never have Margot’s experiences, she’s able to appreciate what life does offer, and everyone is enriched by knowing Lenni.

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot                                                                                Four+ Bookmarks                                                          HarperCollins, 2021                                                                            326 pages, plus Reading Group Guide and Author Interview                                                                         

Time and Truth   Leave a comment

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The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams is an entertaining novel with two separate plots spanning a century. The primary setting for both storylines is a London printing house for the Swansby Encyclopdaedic Dictionary.

In its heyday, Swansby employed dozens to research words and their definitions. Peter Winceworth’s job addresses the letter S. One-hundred years later, Mallory, a young intern, is tasked with determining which words are real. Her publisher, part of the same Swansby family,  has plans to digitize the dictionary.

Alternating between past and present, Peter and Mallory have distinct senses of humor, feelings of self-doubt and an apparent love of language. In an effort to exert a latent sense of power and personality, Peter invents words. These are what later keep Mallory busy.

Through her investigation, Mallory gains an understanding of the person behind the fictitious words. Although he is unknown to her, elements of his personality are revealed.

Williams begins each chapter with a letter from A to Z, each referring (in alphabetical order) to one of Peter’s concocted vocabulary. It’s a clever way of further connecting his work with Mallory’s.

Yet, not everything is rosy in either era. Peter is tormented for a lisp (he only pretends to have). This makes his efforts associated with S-words to be humiliating on the surface, but amusing since he could easily drop the speech impediment. Mallory’s torment comes in the form of repeated threatening phone calls.

The relationship across time is tied to fake words and people with real emotions.

The Liar’s Dictionary

Four Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2020

270 pages

Another View of World History   Leave a comment

Review: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Meghan's ...

You‘d be forgiven for thinking A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters is massive with each section retelling what’s already been shared in the Bible, scientific journals and cultural studies. Instead, Julian Barnes evokes humor and pathos as he draws from those chronicles while creating a narrative about survival.

The half chapter, between 9 and 10, entitled “Parenthesis” is about love.

An unlikely narrator in the first chapter shares its experience as a stowaway aboard Noah’s ark. In a vastly differing account from what’s taught in Sunday schools, Noah is portrayed as unintelligent and a drunk. Although references to the stowaway occur in a few subsequent chapters, its role as narrator ends once the ark reaches shore much, much longer than the 40 days told in popular versions.

Ships, passengers and violent seas – well, in some cases, just violence at sea – set the scene throughout the narrative, as does a trial, space travel and contemporary searches for the ark. Each section (chapter) can stand alone, but it’s important to remember the book’s theme, which is what the title implies.

Just as some history books often get bogged down in too much detail, Barnes falls in line with the genre. For example, the chapter appropriately entitled “The Wars on Religion,” about the trial of woodworm accused of blasphemy, while initially amusing, gets old fast.

Even the final chapter, “The Dream,” which provides an idea of heaven is too long, especially since even the narrator grows tired of it.

A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Vintage International, 1989
307 pages

History Makes Good Mystery   Leave a comment

Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey was first published in 1951; the reprint in 1979. Yet, this gem of a mystery remains, well, timeless.

The crime and the manner of investigation are atypical. Alan Grant, of Scotland Yard, is recuperating in hospital with a broken leg. He’s bored, unhappy and not interested in reading. That is until he sees a copy of a painting of Richard III. He’s intrigued, particularly since the king’s face doesn’t mesh with the reputation of the man who killed to gain the crown. This sets Grant on a bedridden chase to learn more about Richard, whose short reign and place in history were tarnished.

Dry humor and rich narrative accompany Grant in his pursuit: was the king truly responsible for the murder of his two nephews to ensure his rise to the throne? The patient is assisted by Brent Carradine, a young researcher at the British Museum, and chronicles about English royalty of the 15th century. Even though all those involved at the time are, obviously, dead, Grant still conducts interviews: questioning his nurses and friends. They confirm Richard’s unfortunate place in history is warranted; Grant isn’t convinced.

Through  Carradine’s research, driven by Grant’s inquiries, it becomes clear Richard has been falsely maligned. In bringing history to life, the author’s description of Grant’s enthusiasm is palpable, as is his disappointment in the account rendered by historians, including Thomas More’s. The patient’s boredom converts to purpose and his recovery is almost as significant as his discoveries.

The Daughter of Time
Four Bookmarks
Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster, 1979
206 pages

Mom is the Best Private Investigator   Leave a comment

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Celine by Peter Heller is a love letter to a lively, clever, socially privileged, yet intuitively aware, woman who happens to be a private investigator. The title character warrants all the admiration and awe the author infuses in this two-in-one mystery – both of which are equally engrossing.

Celine Watkins, 68 years old, appreciates the finer things in life, but what she most enjoys is her avocation of tracking down missing persons. After receiving a call from a young woman wanting to learn more about how her father went missing 20 years ago, Celine can’t resist the challenge.

Her sidekick is her life partner, Pete, an intelligent, reticent and supportive man. He and Celine leave the comfort of their upscale Brooklyn apartment for Wyoming, the last known whereabouts of the man in question.

Meanwhile, Celine’s adult son, Hank, wonders about the secret his mother has kept hidden for decades. This provides the narrative of Celine’s past: her childhood growing up with her two sisters in an aristocratic family where private schools, sailing lessons and speaking French were nothing out of the ordinary.

The alternating chapters build tension as Hank recounts his efforts to learn about the child his mother gave up for adoption and Celine pursues a thin string of clues while being followed in her investigation.

Heller blends humor with meaningful relationships among the different characters. At times Celine seems too good to be true, Mostly, she’s comes across as the strong, fun, determined and smart woman every girl should aspire to be.

Celine
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Alfred A, Knopf, 2017
334 pages

Sculpting a Life From Wax   Leave a comment

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Period novels usually aren’t my thing. It could be the often flowery language, the popular use of first person narrative, the topic, the je ne sais pas. Little by Edward Carey, while guilty of the above, including the French, is captivating. The story, based on the early life of Madame Tussaud known for her wax sculptures of celebrities, is rich with humor, pathos, historical references and lively characters.

Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Marie, as she was generally called until her diminutive size warranted the nickname “Little,” recounts her family background. She literally begins with her birth. Interspersed among the details of her life are drawings. The first identified as “Drawn by herself. In graphite, charcoal, and black chalk. (This being a likeness of her pencil.)” It’s difficult not to smile, although not all of the subsequent illustrations are humorous.

As a child, her life circumstances dramatically change following the death of her parents when she’s relegated to becoming a servant. Yet, Little is witty, intelligent and has a sharp power of observation: Traits that serve her well as her creativity and talents expand.

Little learns the craft of waxwork from the odd Dr. Curtius, who at first sculpted body parts and organs out of wax. Initially, he treats her as a ward. When the pair moves to Paris from Switzerland, her station is reduced to kitchen maid.

Carey’s epic follows the French Revolution with Little’s indomitable spirit whose name bears no reflection on her inner strength and kindness.

Little
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
435 pages

Revelations of a Priest’s Daughter   Leave a comment

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There is something both intriguing and off-putting about the title of Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. Greg, her father was, indeed, a priest in the Catholic Church. This was possible, she writes because her father “snuck past” the rule prohibiting priests from marrying. The real loophole is that a married minister of another denomination can, apparently, seek dispensation from Rome to be ordained as a priest. Pope Benedict XVI approved the request. Father Greg didn’t have to annul his marriage, nor abandon his children. Although, in many ways, as evident in the family stories Lockwood shares, he did.

The author’s tone is humorous and irony is evident throughout. Yet, there is too much cleverness. Her dad’s faith is never depicted as having much depth. Perhaps it is her effort to reveal him as an ordinary, not a holy, man. Even in that regard, he is far from conventional. After all, he lounges around in his boxers and has an extensive (and expensive) guitar collection. In fact he purchases a rare guitar soon after telling his daughter there aren’t funds for her college education.

Despite the title, Lockwood doesn’t focus her attention entirely on her dad. Her mother, her sisters, nieces, nephews and her husband also have prominent places in the narrative. So does a seminarian, who isn’t married and likely does not have kids.

Lockwood is, in fact, a published, award-winning poet. The images and emotions she conveys are vivid, but her often self-mocking tone and airing family laundry quickly wear thin.

Priestdaddy
Three Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
333 pages

Posted October 21, 2018 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews

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Sitting in Awe, Not in Judgement   1 comment

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I read Tattoos on the Heart several years ago. Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries (HBI) in Los Angeles, wrote about his experiences working with gang members. Each chapter left me in tears at the heartfelt stories Boyle shared of those attempting and often overcoming daunting challenges of their life circumstances and poor choices.

Barking to the Choir, Boyle’s new book, is more introspective. It has plenty of heartbreaking vignettes of homies facing incredible odds, but its pull on the heartstrings is looser. In both books an abundance of joy fills most pages even in the direst situations; but this time Boyle’s messages about hope and acceptance are tempered with his interpretation of understanding God’s word. This isn’t a bad thing.

Simple acts of kindness, not just from Boyle, but among the marginalized he writes about are moving. Major leaps of faith, again, not just from the author, but among those populating his world are thought-provoking. I’m left to consider blessings in my own life and the positive choices I’ve been able to make because of the family environment I had.

Father Boyle injects a healthy amount of humor while recounting events of those who pass through HBI’s doors. He isn’t preaching, or barking, but he certainly leaves the reader with much to consider. Two ideas, in particular, in the book resonate with me: awe and judgement. The former is what we should aspire to in our interactions with others; the latter is, unfortunately, more prevailing.

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2017
210 pages

Food, Families and Fate   Leave a comment

The Comfort Food Diaries

Emily Nunn knows food. She wrote about it as a staff writer for The New Yorker and Chicago Tribune, among other publications. She also knows heartbreak and self-damaging behavior, which she shares in The Comfort Food Diaries.

A description of her seemingly-ideal life in Chicago where she lives with her boyfriend, dubbed “the engineer” and his lovely daughter, “the princess,” fades quickly. After Nunn learns that her brother has committed suicide she begins her own self-destructive tailspin through alcoholism and ending the romantic relationship.

Nunn reveals her backstory as she seeks to find balance in her life. The loss of her brother, her parents’ dysfunctional marriage – and ultimate divorce – her relationship with other siblings, relatives and friends fill the pages. At the suggestion of a friend, she embarks on a “comfort food tour.”

The direction of this tour is different than what I anticipated. Rather than a road trip around different parts of the country in search of consolation fare, Nunn sojourns to the places of her past and the role of food in her past and present. This isn’t a one-food-fits-all look at comfort, it is only about Nunn and her perceptions.

My family, for example, has dishes deemed “classics” in lieu of comfort foods. Not because they are universal, instead because they’re unique to us. Nunn, with her family and friends, has her own.

In addition to narrating her quest, Nunn shares recipes with her memories and new experiences. Her writing style is conversational and honest. She also knows how to whet the appetite.

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2017
310 pages