Archive for the ‘New York City’ Tag

Actions, words and moving forward   Leave a comment

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City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is narrated by 89-year-old Vivian Morris reflecting on her life in response to a question posed by Angela, who writes “…I wonder if you might now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?”

The short answer is no. The 400-page response is Vivian revealing her history to ultimately explain what he meant to her. Although Vivian knows who Angela is, it’s evident this isn’t a close relationship. In attempting to answer the question regarding her relationship with Angela’s father, Vivian recounts her lively, scarlet past.

Vivian arrives in 1940’s New York City where she’s been banished for tarnishing the family name. She’s failed all of her classes at Vassar. Being sent to live with her bohemian Aunt Peg, who runs a third-rate theatre, is the best thing to ever happen to Vivian.

Vivian lacks an education but is a creative, innovative seamstress and is soon making costumes. Life is good for Vivian until she makes a grave mistake she carries the rest of her life, as does someone else for a completely reason.

After her fall from grace, Vivian briefly returns to her parents’ home before being summoned back to the City by Peg.

Gilbert provides glimpses of the theatre, war effort and beyond as Vivian eventually lives life on her own terms. Although, Angela is frequently addressed throughout the novel, the unexpected connection to Vivian is not revealed until near the end. Herein lies one of the narrative’s many beauties.

City of Girls
Four-and-half bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2019
470 pages

Beneath the Surface   Leave a comment

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Jennifer Egan is masterful at setting the scene and evoking another era in Manhattan Beach, her recent novel. Her characters, their emotions and their resolve are captivating. The narrative is part love story, part gangster tale in an historic World War II, (mostly) New York City setting.

As a young girl, Anna Kerrigan tagged along with her father, Eddie, on his errands, presumably for the union. On one such outing, the 11-year-old and Eddie visit Dexter Styles at his mansion-like home on a private beach. It’s evident that the Kerrigans don’t share the same lifestyle as Styles.

By contrast, Anna’s family lives in a small, sixth floor apartment. Her younger sister, Lydia, is severely disabled requiring constant care.

Fast forward and Anna is now the sole provider for her mother and sister thanks to her job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where she becomes the first female diver. Her father disappeared years earlier and the country is at war.

The progression of sorrow Anna experiences regarding Eddie begins with anguish which evolves into anger before settling into indifference. For the reader, however, his long absence is hard to ignore. Egan wants it that way. Meanwhile, Styles resurfaces. Anna remembers him; even though she catches his attention, he has no recollection of her as a child.

The interactions of this trio of main characters across time, complete with back stories, hopes and foibles, provide the book’s focus.

Ultimately, it’s about reinventing oneself and the toll it takes to do so.

Manhattan Beach
Four-and-a-quarter Bookmarks
Scribner, 2017
433 pages

No Great After Taste   Leave a comment

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Sweetbitter is a combination love story and homage to restaurant life, particularly servers. It’s far from reverent and certainly doesn’t offer a warm-hearted view of the front and back of house scenes. It demonstrates that working in a restaurant is often a lifestyle and not just a job.

Told from 22-year-old Tess’s point of view, Stephanie Danler’s novel is unflinching when it comes to sex, drugs and ego trips. Tess arrives in New York City from the Midwest. With only limited diner experience, she lands a job as a back waiter in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. She’s unsure of herself, has no true motivation, but still simply seems ready to get on with her life, whatever it may be.

The novel’s four sections are broken down by seasons beginning with a sweltering summer. As each progresses I was increasingly disappointed. Summer and fall had my full attention as I expected Tess to develop interests and become more confident. By the winter and spring segments, I was disappointed. Yes, Tess makes some self-discoveries, but they’re minor in the scheme of things.

Part of the problem is that Danler never makes Tess’s obsessive fixation on Jake, the bartender, tangible or credible enough. His relationship with Simone, an older server who, inexplicably, fascinates Tess, is a mystery waiting to be solved; but it lacks tension. Instead, predictability takes control, which is far more bitter than anything sweet Danler has to offer.

Sweetbitter
(Barely) Three bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
352 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

Maternal Ties   Leave a comment

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My Name is Lucy Barton is a statement and not only the title of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. It’s an affirmation as Lucy reflects on the relationship with her mother, which is like a faulty wire: occasionally there’s no connection.

Lucy is from a rural Illinois town where growing up her family lived so far below the poverty line as to make it seem something to attain. Lucy’s life is revealed as she lies in a hospital bed with a view of the Chrysler Building in New York City talking with her mother whom she hasn’t seen or spoken with in years. Strout is methodical as she merges Lucy’s past with the present.

The rich, stark pacing and imagery serve to expose family dynamics in the narrative. That is, Strout’s writing provides enough detail to shape a situation or character, but not so much that there is little left to the imagination. In fact, this is what makes some aspects harrowing: imagining what life was like for young Lucy. She lived with her older siblings and parents in a garage until age 11.

Her mother’s brief presence provides the vehicle to see Lucy’s past; the extended hospitalization gives Lucy time to consider her adult life as a mother, wife and writer.

Lucy should despise her parents and her past, yet she doesn’t. Her family was shunned and her parents were apparently abusive in their neglect. Lucy is grateful for her mother’s presence. The mother-daughter bond, at least from Lucy’s perspective, overrides past sins.

My Name is Lucy Barton
Four and a half Bookmarks
Random House, 2016
191 pages

The Never-setting, Always-rising Sun   Leave a comment

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In The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, the never-setting sun has such a significant role that it’s practically a character alongside almost-18-year-old Yasha and 21-year-old Frances. These are not star-crossed lovers; in fact, they’re quite lucky. Their story begins with the two in New York City. They don’t meet until circumstances put them on a small island in the Norwegian Sea near the Arctic Circle.

Initially, the chapters alternate between Frances and Yasha’s voices. Eventually, they merge into one. Dinerstein evokes a strong sense of place in the isolated far north as the two find each other. As with any love story, there are obstacles including dysfunctional families, complicated backstories and quirky sub-characters.

Frances leaves Manhattan for a Norwegian artist’s community. Yasha arrives soon after to fulfill his father’s dream. Perhaps the most engaging part of the narrative is the life Yasha and his father have running their bakery in Brighton Beach. This is something they’ve done since immigrating from Russia 10 years earlier. Yasha’s mother, Olyana, was to join them; years pass and the family is never reunited.

Still, Olyana is among those in the quirky classification (it’s actually a long list). She’s an important part of the story, not only because she’s the mother of a protagonist but because of her lengthy absence as such. Meanwhile, Frances has family issues of her own. Among other things, her eccentric parents are separating.

Dinerstein injects humor with captivating prose to create something more than a tale of young love.

The Sunlit Night
Not-quite-four Bookmarks
Bloomsbury, 2015
249 pages

The Silent Treatment   Leave a comment

 

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Florence Gordon is a crotchety old woman. Actually, she’s not that old (75), and bitchy is a better description. Yet, this title character of Brian Morton’s novel is certainly likeable – not lovable, but fascinating. Hers is a forceful, no-nonsense personality. Although she’s a writer and considered an icon among feminists, she’s a poor communicator.

Sure, she’s written numerous essays, has plans to write her memoir and speaks her mind. The trouble is she doesn’t share what’s in her heart. Neither does anyone else in her family: her son, Daniel; his wife, Janine who adores Florence; nor their daughter, college-age daughter, Emily. This is a family of secrets. They hold tight to the things that should be shared with kin. Sadly, they spend a lot of time interpreting, often erroneously, one another’s actions.

Florence is put off by Janine’s adoration and seemingly disappointed by Daniel’s career choice: a cop. Still, Florence and Emily slowly start to build a relationship beyond something perfunctory. Emily helps her grandmother with some research. The latter is surprised to discover that her granddaughter is intelligent and perceptive.

The writing is terse, yet the characters and New York City setting are well-portrayed. Morton does a fine job, especially with the females, of inviting the reader to see what’s inside the characters’ heads. An absent character, Janine and Daniel’s son, is alluded to as a talker. Perhaps he could have gotten Florence to open up. That would have made for a completely different, but not necessarily better, story.

Florence Gordon
Four Bookmarks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
306 pages