Archive for the ‘literature’ Tag

Family Ties   Leave a comment

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One house, 13 siblings, ghosts and the city of Detroit provide the foundation for The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Thank goodness she provides a family tree to keep track of Francis and Viola Turner’s offspring. It helps that much of the present-day story focuses on Cha Cha, the eldest of the Turner children, and Lelah, the youngest. They’re separated by 23 years; their issues are familiar but not quite cliches.

Flournoy also takes the reader back to 1944 when Francis leaves Viola and young son in his rural Arkansas hometown to seek a better life in Detroit. Francis plans to send for his family once he’s settled. He stays away for more than a year, leaving Viola to consider other options.

This backdrop is interspersed with how the family has coped through the years. Francis is dead, Cha Cha has grandchildren of his own; even Lelah is a grandmother. Few have intact marriages or relationships, yet the family is close-knit. The house, the one in which all 13 Turners grew up, is empty and fallen into disrepair. Viola is no longer well enough to live on her own; she lives with Cha Cha and his wife in the suburbs.

The house, vividly described with Pepto Bismo pink bedroom walls, narrow stairs and large porch reflects the rise and fall of Detroit. Once alive with the large family’s comings and goings, its monetary worth is practically non-existent. The brothers and sisters, though, are mixed in their assessment of its sentimental value.

The Turner House
Four Bookmarks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
338 pages

Blind Date Review   Leave a comment

RayBrad

The blind date set up by the Pikes Peak Library District was okay. I might go out again with another Ray Bradbury book, but for now the novellas in Now and Forever are enough.

The stories blend a sense of otherworldliness with the familiar. First in Somewhere a Band is Playing, Bradbury plays with the themes of life and the afterlife. The story begins abruptly when a writer practically falls off a train near an isolated Arizona town. It’s beautifully described and seems an ideal place to live, at least until the writer begins to wonder what’s beneath the surface beauty. It’s an enjoyable story, but predictable. I was hoping for something other than a “Twilight Zone” twist.

In Leviathan ’99, Bradbury, by his own admission in the preface, has created a sci-fi version of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, right down to the main character: Ishmael. Set in 2099, the beast is a big white comet pursued by a spaceship and its blind captain. It’s actually fun making the jump from being at sea to out in space. And, it’s not to be as big a leap as one might initially imagine.

Ratedate

It’s been years since I’ve read anything by Bradbury. Although I have long been intrigued by the titles of his numerous works, I am not a reader who’s made it through much of his literary oeuvre. I can certainly appreciate his imaginative approach and accessible tone, but the bottom line is that he’s not really my type.

Now and Forever
Three Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2007
177 pages

A Book Blind Date   Leave a comment

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As I was leaving my neighborhood library, the Old Colorado City Branch of the Pikes Peak Library District, two shelves with books wrapped in newspaper caught my eye. They were near the backdoor in what seemed an out of the way location for a holiday display, although I realized it’s far too early to be in that mindset. Then I saw the sign: “Blind Date With A Book.”

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The concept is to check out a wrapped book without knowing its title. I was intrigued. I picked up a couple of books/packages in much the same way I’d consider which gift to open first on my birthday or Christmas. Did I really want to commit to something I knew absolutely nothing about? What if it was one I’d already read?  Yet, in a way, starting a book is very similar to a blind date anyway; there’s always a sense of the unknown, of possibilities and disappointments.

I considered another blind date. It’s how I met my husband, and that’s turned out very well. So, I decided to take my chances.  I was paired with Now and Forever by Ray Bradbury. I haven’t read anything by Bradbury since my high school days, but this book contains two previously unpublished novellas: Somewhere a Band is Playing and Leviathian ’99.

I laughed when I opened book. It was dedicated to two women, which didn’t strike me as a very auspicious way to begin a date.

I’ll review the date, I mean, the novellas in a separate post.

A Dog-Write-Dog World   Leave a comment

Shaggy

In a twist on the what-did-you-bring-me refrain from my kids’ childhood reactions to out-of-town trips, my oldest son brought me a book. I appreciate that it made him think of me. Shaggy Muses by Maureen Adams examines the relationships between five female writers and their dogs. I’ve had several dogs in my life and all hold special places in my heart. My dog Jackson and I have a strong bond; although I’m not sure I consider him my muse, he might prove me wrong.

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Adams’s book is subtitled The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte. It’s part academic, largely anecdotal, and for dog lovers who happen to enjoy literature it’s particularly enjoyable. The book started as a series in scholarly journals on the bond between dogs and their humans.

The relationships between these writers and their dogs were strong to the point of distraction. In fact, the dogs served as buffers making it possible to limit expressing real emotion. Adams writes, “Elizabeth and Robert [Browning] used Flush as a symbolic go-between to help them express their feelings in conversations and letters.” The other women did the same.

Some of the writers had numerous dogs, other just a single source of inspiration. One narrative involving Bronte and Keeper, her large, intimidating part-Mastiff, is exceptionally disturbing. Bronte beat her dog, and then comforted him, which suggests the love-hate relationship often evident in abusive relationships. Fortunately, the other stories Adams provides are more endearing.

Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
The University of Chicago Press, 2007
299 pages, with notes and index

Storytelling At Its Finest   3 comments

Maya

Isabel Allende is a master storyteller. Her characters have depth; their lives are full of mystery, love and befuddlement. Her most recent novel, Maya’s Notebook, is no exception. Well, it is, because it’s exceptional – even for Allende.

Maya is a 19-year-old girl on the lam on a remote island off the coast of Chile, her grandmother’s homeland. Maya was raised in Berkeley by her grandparents, a couple remarkable in their differences and their passion for life. Maya’s father floats in and out in a minor role; her mother doesn’t even rate that distinction. Several stories are told through Maya’s journal. She recounts her magical childhood, her arrival in Chiloe’ and counters these almost idyllic recollections with the explanation of why she is in hiding. The book’s first sentence, while seemingly melodramatic, creates suspense: “… if I valued my life at all, I should not get in touch with anyone I knew until we could be sure my enemies were no longer looking for me.”

Maya writes of her past and present in chronological order until the two eventually intersect. She begins with how her grandparents met and moves into how, as an infant, she came to live with them. Allende builds tension through Maya’s descriptions of her avalanche of mistakes made as an adolescent. Grief and environment contributed to one bad decision after another. Yet, a sense of calm surfaces as Maya relates her life in Chiloe’ while learning to appreciate the world around her and her place in it.

Maya’s Notebook
Five Bookmarks
Harper Collins, 2013
387 pages

Puzzled by the Hype   Leave a comment

TenthDecember

Satirical, dark, contemporary and poignant are apt descriptions of the 10 short stories by George Saunders, in a collection entitled Tenth of December. Consistent and pleasing, on the other hand, don’t make my list.

Writing in multiple voices, Saunders’s edge dulls by the end of the collection: too much anguish, disappointment and loss.  However, “Victory Lap” and “Puppy” tug at the soul. The narrators are very aware of what is missing in their lives. Saunders nails the internal struggles of the main characters. “Victory Lap” features two teens whose inner voices are imaginative, rebellious and forthright – unlike their true personalities. Kyle is a teenage boy grappling with whether or not to come to the aid of his next door neighbor as she’s being abducted. Before the inner struggle ensues, he cops an attitude toward his parents, extreme control freaks. This explains Kyle’s reluctance: his parents are likely to be disappointed at what others will perceive as heroism. Although it may not seem like a likely place for humor to reside, this is a laugh-out loud story. Saunders creates tension and humor effortlessly.

“Puppy” carries that same unlikely combination, but this time with a mother as narrator trying to appease her overindulged children. Spoiled kids, grown kids who make poor choices, parents who make bad decisions and adults knowing they need to do better with their lives are among the characters Saunders creates. They’re not people I want to know. Perhaps therein lies the problem: they are, in fact, all around us.

Tenth of December
Not-quite Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2013
251 pages

Unrequited Life   2 comments

Virginsuicide

First published twenty years ago, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides remains poignant and rich with dark humor. The account of the Lisbon sisters, whose mere existence – and ultimate demise – captured the attention of their entire community, is told in a plural form of the third person voice representing the neighborhood’s teenage boys. It’s not quite the “royal we” but is an interesting technique nonetheless.

Eugenides’s narrative takes place in a quiet Detroit suburb. Seasons are noted by references to fish-flies, fallen leaves and holiday lights. For the Lisbons, however, there are complications. The narrator(s) rely on observation and references to interviews conducted with other neighbors, teachers and clergy. Mention is also made of several “exhibits” which include medical reports and photographs.

The five sisters range in age from 13 to 17, and the youngest is the first to kill herself. It’s clear not just from this suicide which takes place early in the novel, but also from the title, that the others will follow suit. The narrators share this sense of the girls’ impending self-destruction. Eugenides masterfully creates tension, and toys with the reader suggesting the possibility that, perhaps, the girls will be unsuccessful.

However, this is not a work simply about teen angst with no way out. It is a coming of age chronicle and a love story. The narrator(s) are forever changed by their connection to the Lisbon family, but the impression is that would have been true even without suicide as part of the tale.

The Virgin Suicides

Four Bookmarks
Picador, 1993
243 pages

My Favorite Book of 2013 — So Far   2 comments

I took last week off; I read, I hiked, I ate too much, I slept some, I wrote a bit, but mostly I decided to take a break from the Blue Page Special. In the process, I discovered that I missed it.

TellWolves

I just finished reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and can’t stop thinking about it. Although the writing doesn’t fall into the take-your-breath-away category, the story certainly does. I still want to spend time with the characters: June, a 14-year-old misfit; Greta, her super-achieving sister; Finn, their deceased uncle; and Toby, Finn’s lover.

June is devastated when Finn, her best friend, dies of AIDS. She struggles, then Toby enters her life, and she continues to flounder. Except now she has someone to help her keep Finn’s memory alive. Toby and Finn lived together and, even though she spent a lot of time in their apartment, June never knew about Toby. This aspect has the potential to be implausible; instead, it enhances June’s character as a naïve teenager. Another potentially hard-to-believe feature is the bond that develops between the young girl and the thirty-something Toby.  Remarkably, there is never anything creepy or uncomfortable about it. This is largely due to their love for Finn, and the tentative manner in which their friendship evolves. Equally important is the sisters’ relationship.

Brunt masterfully creates relationships that are rich, painful, and grow before our very eyes. The novel is about friendship, first loves, misplaced jealousy and sibling relationships. Set in the mid 1980s, AIDS has just begun to make itself felt in American culture. Yet, that is simply a background element. This is a coming-of-age story that considers the way people change based on age, interests, opportunities, and circumstances.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

The Dial Press, 2012

355 pages

Listening to I Forget What   4 comments

The title alone, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, is sufficient to lure the imagination, and Alexandra Fuller’s colorful, poignant memoir of her mother is enough to keep it willingly ensnared. This is a sequel to Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, which I did not read. But then I didn’t read Cocktail Hour either. Instead, I listened to it.

Conditions have to be just right for me to turn to an audiobook. Usually, it means a road trip, but in this case I wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, I was stuck painting the downstairs bathroom.

Fuller’s mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa,” is a character full of flaws, passion and imagination. The author makes it clear it was not easy being her daughter. Nicola is exuberant to the point of embarrassment of all around her. While Fuller  does not hold back in detailing her mother’s domineering persona, neither does she waffle in showing the occasional moments Nicola allowed an approachable, sensitive side to appear. This is not a daughter-as-victim tell all memoir. It is a daughter recognizing who she is thanks to, and in spite of, her mother.

One of the joys of listening to this, rather than having read the book is that Nicola loves to sing. Like Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, the narrator breaks into song. Sure, I can imagine a tune in my head as I read, but here it was treat hearing this aspect of Nicola’s personality.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Four Stars
Alexandra Fuller
Recorded Books, LLC, 2011

Street Life   2 comments

While wondering at the necessity, I marvel at the kind of concentration and craftsmanship it takes to write a single sentence that makes sense and holds interest as it spans 12 pages rife with characters, each distinctly different, who share a common struggle against fate, karma, some elusive and nebulous hand manipulating a game board with varying designs and obstacles; yet this engaging contest in Michael Chabon’s most recent novel, Telegraph Avenue, is played with swagger and fear by men, women and teenage boys fighting to hold onto dreams while desperately needing to relinquish the realities of their colorful lives.

I lack the skill, and inclination, to take a 100+ word sentence any further. Chabon can, but that’s the least of his mastery. Set in Oakland, his story about two men who run a (old school vinyl) record store in danger of being razed to accommodate a mega urban renewal project is a tribute to friendship, music and, oddly, especially family.

The novel is drunk with sensory images. Consider: “At 9:45 a.m. the first batch of chicken parts sank, to the sound of applause, into the pig fat.” Or: “… the loose weather stripping that peeped like a gang banger’s drawers from the seams around the back door.”

The major flaw lies in the glut of characters; initially, it’s difficult keeping track of who’s who. Nonetheless, it’s clear everyone, from actors to midwives, is just trying to get by in life while a poor economy, outdated technology and children get in the way.

Telegraph Avenue
Four Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2012
465 pages