Archive for the ‘penguin books’ Tag

Friends and Guests   Leave a comment

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Rules For Visiting is much more than a guide for would-be guests (and hosts) to follow. Rather, Jessica Francis Kane’s novel is an introspective look at how one moves through life based on the influences family and friends have on that journey.

May Attaway is a 40-year-old, single gardener. She pays more attention to the flora than to most people and situations. She’s observant when it comes to nature, but hasn’t mastered the art of social niceties. She has a few friends, but no one with whom she is in regular contact. It doesn’t occur to her that Leo, her car mechanic and the owner of a local taco shop, could be more than an acquaintance. Nor has she considered a co-worker would be more than a colleague.

When given a bonus at work for four weeks off with pay, May deliberates how to spend the time and ultimately decides to visit the four people she considers friends. Each represents different phases of her life.

The visits are spaced throughout different seasons. Between the trips, May ponders the relationships with her deceased mother, other family members and neighbors. The author deftly reminds the reader of May’s true passion through the many references of plants (including their formal scientific names). She also includes drawings of trees by Edward Carey marking the five sections of the book.

It’s no surprise that May learns much about herself and the importance of friendship in travels, but the process is nonetheless refreshing.

Rules for Visiting
Four Bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2019
287 pages

Definition of Relationships   1 comment

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Initially, it was the title of Jackie Copleton’s novel, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, I found intriguing. Fortunately, as the story progressed, so did my interest.

The novel begins with Amaterasu opening her front door to a disfigured, middle-aged man claiming to be her grandson, Hideo. He was presumed dead 40 years ago following the bombing of Nagasaki. Amaterasu’s daughter was also killed on that fateful August day. Hideo bears the scars of radiation making it difficult to discern any recognizable features. He gives Amaterasu a sealed box of letters written by Sato, his adoptive father, the same man with whom she shares a history she prefers to forget.

The narrative moves back and forth in time to life before and after the bomb based on Amaterasu’s memories, her daughter’s diaries and Sato’s letters. Hideo has no memories of his life before the bombing. He has no stories to share with Amaterasu to convince her he is, indeed, her grandson. She refuses to consider the possibility, yet she meets with Hideo on multiple occasions.

Copleton begins each chapter with an explanation of some aspect of Japanese culture. This is both interesting and helpful in trying to understand Amaterasu’s mindset. She is old and alone following the death of her husband of many years. They left Japan long before in a hopeless effort to try to forget their losses.

Hideo’s fortitude and patience are tested in his efforts to convince Amaterasu of their connection and she must consider her past relationships.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Three-and three-quarter bookmarks
Penguin Books 2015
292 pages

Lost at Sea   1 comment

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It’s not often that I give up on a book, but I’m calling it quits after 78 pages of The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge. I tried, I really tried to get into this book. I wanted to, but it wasn’t happening.

In less than 100 pages I knew little more of what novel was about then I did on page one: zilch. That’s an exaggeration; I had gleaned a little info from the book jacket. The problem is that the synopsis and the narrative didn’t mesh well  — at least not in the first 80 pages.

The Night Ocean is part of The Tournament of Books Summer Reading Challenge. I’m a fan of the Tournament of Books, which happens around the same time as the NCAA basketball tournament following a similar bracket formula. The Summer Challenge involves two books, La Farge’s and A Separation. I put library holds on both; I’m still waiting for the latter.

The premise of The Night Ocean is a woman’s search for her presumed-dead husband, his obsession with H.P. Lovecraft, the 1930s horror writer who had an affair with a 16-year-old boy (who later gained fame as an Aztecs scholar). Why wouldn’t that be intriguing?

Most of what I read involved Lovecraft, including pages and pages of his journal entries. His style and tone were off-putting: “Down at y’Dockes againe this night, seeking Subjects for y’Worke.”

Challenge or not, I don’t want to toil this hard for a summer read.

The Night Ocean
Penguin Books, 2017
389 pages

Charlotte Bronte and Hard-to-Read Books   Leave a comment

Villette

I admit I decided to read Villette by Charlotte Bronte because of the Masterpiece Theatre program “To Walk Invisible The Bronte Sisters.” I knew some background about the women who had to first write under male pseudonyms; the show whetted my appetite for more. I thought I should read something new-to-me.

It was difficult reading for many reasons — primarily the language and perspectives. I wasn’t surprised that reading the story written in 1853 might prove a little formidable, but I expected to eventually find my groove. I didn’t.

Villette is a fictional Belgian village. Consequently, Bronte incorporated a lot of French into the dialogue, as if things weren’t difficult enough. Translations are provided among the notes in the back of the book. But who wants to keep turning pages back and forth all the time?

The novel follows Lucy Snow, a young English woman without means. She leaves England, and finds work as a nanny and then a teacher at a private girls’ school in Villette.

Lucy is an introvert and at times also appears misanthropic. She does allow a few to enter into her world. She’s reconnected with her godmother, whose son is now a doctor. He and Paul Emmanuel, also a teacher at the school, stir Lucy’s interest. The relationships with the two take many twists. Yet, none are particularly captivating. This may be due, in large part, to the era in which the novel was written: relationships moved at an aggravatingly slow pace.

Villette
Three bookmarks
First published in 1853; Penguin Books Classic Edition, 2004
611 pages, this edition includes a chronology of the author’s life; a brief history of the Bronte family, an introduction, suggested additional reading, notes and glossary.

Schooled in Cooking   3 comments


The title of Kathleen Flinn’s experience at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris is what initially caught my eye: The Shaper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. These words are advice from one of her chef instructors as begins the first of three sections required to earn a diploma from the prestigious cooking school. The subtitle offered more foreshadowing than I would have liked, though: “Love, Laughter and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School.”

Flinn’s account combines her background, her romance and her Parisian education, which involved much more than cooking as she learned to navigate a new city with only un petit peu knowledge of French.

The book is divided into the three parts that correspond with the units at the school: Basic, Intermediate and Superior Cuisine. Flinn’s culinary undertaking is humorous, honest and, unfortunately, predictable. Of course she grows through this journey; of course she learned techniques that were as foreign as the language; and of course she is with the man of her dreams. The latter requires no spoiler alert; this is revealed early in the narrative.

Despite its predictability, Flinn gives an insider’s view of how the classes are taught, the types of people who enroll (not surprisingly from all over the world) and the friendliness of the French people. She also includes several recipes and even includes a menu guide for book groups. Fortunately, none require deboning a chicken or dealing with dead rabbit heads.

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Penguin Books, 2007
278 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

Tending a Family Tree   Leave a comment

A Good American is not only an engaging tale about immigrants, it’s also a captivating
account of the power of family and community. Alex George’s novel begins as a love story,
which ultimately becomes a chronicle spanning four generations. George starts with the un-
likely courtship of Frederick Meisenheimer and Jette Furst in Hanover, Germany. The uncon-
ventional Frederick woos Jette, a robust independent woman, by singing Puccini from behind
a privet wall; thus setting a precedent for the importance of music in the Meisenheimer house-
hold. The pair soon relocates to Beatrice, Missouri.

Narrated by James, Frederick and Jette’s grandson, the novel is an absorbing examination
of domestic life. The story is abundant with an eccentric cast of supporting characters, rang-
ing from a giant to a midget. And, as James notes, “While we were growing up, so was America.”

Rural America is the perfect backdrop for the Meisenheimer portrait. This is not a glowing
portrayal because the members have their share of faults. Yet these only to serve to make
everyone more believable. As with any family, dysfunction does exist in the bloodline. Its
manifestation simply, and oddly, makes everyone even more endearing. The beauty, and
strength, of the novel is that it is filled with not just one good American, but many. It may
be easy to overlook the concept of America as a melting pot today, but George’s narrative,
even while acknowledging the negative elements lurking in the shadows, reflects the best
ingredients that make this country what it is.

A Good American

Five Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012
387 pages