Archive for the ‘Random House’ Tag

Love and Espionage   Leave a comment

40274582

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson addresses a shopping list of timely topics: sexism, racism, politics and the meaning of family.

The story begins with a bang: the attempted murder of Marie Mitchell, an intelligence officer with the FBI. Marie’s story is told via a journal she writes to her young twin sons. She addresses them frequently, which reminds readers they’re privy to what a mother wants her children to know. As the novel progresses, the phrase in case anything happens could be added to most sentences.

Marie kills the would-be assassin who invades her Connecticut home, takes her kids and family dog to Martinique to hide in her estranged mother’s home. Marie’s narrative recounts her youth, including that she, her older sister and their father were left in New York City by their mother who returned to her island country.

Marie is intelligent and likeable, but her sister, Helene, has more personality as portrayed through Marie’s memories. The sisters are close. Helene decides she wants to be an FBI agent when she grows up; Marie follows suit after Helene mysteriously dies. However, because of gender and race, Marie’s given little opportunity for advancement.

Then, she’s approached to help undermine the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara.

Wilkinson takes the reader back to the 1960s, mid-1980s and early 1992 when the novel begins. At times fast-paced, at others more deliberate, Marie wonders about the role she’s assigned as she gets to know Sankara. Why she’s a target is the over-riding question.

American Spy
Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2018
292 pages

Homage to Gourmet Magazine   Leave a comment

Save Me the Plums

I’m a Ruth Reichl groupie. I have no idea what I would say if we ever came face-to-face, but it’s fun to imagine feeling like an awkward pre-teen at this point in my life if that were ever to occur.

Save Me the Plums is Reichl’s latest memoir. It focuses on her experiences as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.

Rather than begin with her first day on the job, Reichl instead invites the reader to share her first memory of the once-iconic magazine. She was eight years old and recalls specific stories that ignited her senses.

Then, in her heyday as dining critic for The New York Times she’s offered the job after meeting with first the editorial director of Conde Nast publications and later Si Newhouse, owner of the publishing conglomerate.

Reichl is initially reluctant. She’s a writer, not a manager, but, obviously, she takes the job. Interspersed with her recollections of the changes made to update Gourmet are a few recipes. Mostly, the narrative follows the magazine’s re-emergence from a stodgy publication out of touch with home cooks to something much more. The focus remained on food, but gives equal attention to quality writing.

It’s fun to read about Reichl’s reactions to having a driver and a clothing allowance. It’s enlightening to learn about the various aspects of putting a magazine together and learning about the people involved. It’s sad to see the efforts by Reichl and her team come to naught as Gourmet ends its days.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Random House, 2019
266 pages

The Price of Knowledge   Leave a comment

35133922

Educated by Tara Westover is one of the most emotionally difficult books I’ve read, but I couldn’t put it down.

The memoir recounts Westover’s journey as the daughter of survivalists in rural Idaho. The government was never to be trusted, neither were doctors or teachers. She never attended school; to say her mother’s efforts at homeschooling fell short is, at best, an understatement. Although hospital care was necessary a few times, the family relied on her mother’s knowledge of herbs.

For much of her life, Westover never questioned her family’s lifestyle. She had no basis for comparison. This isn’t the only aspect making this a challenging book. It was the physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her brother, Shawn. Her parents offered no protection.

Yet, Westover teaches herself how to study and pass the ACT with a score high enough to get accepted into Brigham Young University. From there she studies at Cambridge and Harvard universities, eventually earning a doctorate degree in history from Cambridge.

This is a gritty, heart-breaking narrative and Westover’s self-realization comes with a high price: she must either renounce her education or her family. When she refuses to give in to her parents demands, she is disowned, shunned by her most of her family. Her father’s fervent interpretation of the Bible doesn’t include anything close to acceptance or unconditional love.

Westover’s education extends beyond books and lectures. Her story reflects how much she gained once out of her family’s shadow and what she lost.

Educated
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Random House, 2018
322 pages

Shall We Gather at the Cemetery   Leave a comment

Image result
Lincoln in the Bardo is a mash-up. It’s part Greek tragedy, part play, part poem and completely imaginative. George Saunders has crafted a novel that can best be described as unusual, and that’s meant as a compliment.

Amid a graveyard setting, following the death of Willie Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of the U.S. president, Saunders’ tale is about grief, the afterlife and the disenfranchised. It includes a lot of humor.

Bardo comes from the Buddhist thought regarding a state between life and death; a purgatory of sorts. The characters are largely those trapped in this transitional stage. Although they are definitely dead, Saunders brings them to life through references to their foibles when they were alive as well as through their attitudes and deeds among the nonliving. They aren’t zombies, but they are supernatural.

There is no dialogue. Instead, observations on the action are shared through statements from the characters or from accounts in books, newspapers, conversations and other sources. It’s a blend of having each statement presented as lines in a play with footnotes. For example, this about Abraham Lincolns’ grief:

“It was only just at bedtime, when the boy would normally present
himself for some talk or roughhousing that Mr. Lincoln seemed truly
mindful of the irreversibility of the loss.”
In “Selected Memories from a Life of Service,”
By Stanley Hohner

Initially, it was a bit difficult to embrace the format and the narrative. However, it becomes evident that Saunders is creative and appreciates a good laugh.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2017
343 pages

The American Frontier   Leave a comment

 

Image result

Years ago I gave myself permission to stop reading books that couldn’t hold my interest. Nonetheless, I still struggle with the idea that once I start something I should finish it. As I slogged my way through Amy Bloom’s Away, I wondered when I’d set it down for good. I never did.

Bloom’s slow-paced story is about the determination of a mother’s love and the sacrifices she endures. It’s also a narrative about immigrants and fitting into not just new environments but adjusting to different customs and expectations.

Lillian Leyb is a seamstress living in New York City’s lower east end in 1924. As she becomes romantically entangled with her employer and his son, her past is slowly revealed. She left Russia where her husband and, presumably, her child were killed. Lillian becomes a kept woman until she learns from her cousin, a recent arrival from the homeland, that her daughter is still alive. Thus begins Lillian’s journey across the  United States including the expansive Alaskan frontier en route to Siberia to find her daughter.

Lillian experiences both the kindness and cruelty of strangers; she’s befriended and betrayed. Bloom incorporates humor and pathos in Lillian’s trek by explaining what’s in store for those Lillian encounters – from her east end companions to those in a Seattle brothel and later a women’s prison in Alaska. Through it all, Lillian remains determined to find her daughter.

Although Away was no page-turner for me, I’m glad I stuck with it. It just took time.

Away
Three Bookmarks
Random House, 2008
240 pages

Caught up in the Hype   1 comment

26893819

In Emma Cline’s novel, The Girls, narrator Evie Boyd recalls her involvement as a 14-year-old with a Charles Manson-like cult. The names are changed, the location is different, but Evie’s perspective still provides enough nuanced similarities to the Helter Skelter summer of 1969.

The setting is northern California. Evie’s parents are divorced and after falling out with her childhood friend, Evie meets Suzanne who’s a few years old. Suzanne introduces Evie to Mitch and others at a commune on a nearby ranch. He is meant to be charismatic and profound, but it’s Suzanne that Evie is drawn to. She ingratiates herself into life at the ranch to be with Suzanne. Her interest is occasionally reciprocated by the older girl.

Cline imbues Evie with all the pathos associated with a young teenager. Her obsession with Suzanne is puzzling: is it sexual or is it her need for an involved maternal figure?

When Evie returns to the ranch after a brief absence, its allure has begun to fade. She can sense there’s an itch to scratch, but isn’t sure of its source. It’s  at this point that a few inconsistencies surface in the narrative.

Years later, reflecting on that summer, Evie wonders what kept her from participating in the violence carried out by Suzanne and others under Mitch’s directive. If she hadn’t been told to leave, would she/could she have acted as they did? This raises the question of how we think we might respond in certain situations and how we actually do.

The Girls
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Random House, 2016
455 pages

Maternal Ties   Leave a comment

25893709

 

 

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

Lotsa Luck   Leave a comment

9781400067244

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom is a great title, because it can be uttered in different ways: with a note of sarcasm or with an emphasis on appreciation. Thanks to Bloom’s strength as a story teller, the reader is the lucky one.

From the onset, this is a captivating story of how families get by, not in a financial way but emotionally. It’s a look at the way we create families when those we’re born into cause disappointment and pain. This is the case for all of the main characters. Twelve-year-old Eva, abandoned by her unmarried mother, is left to live with her father and his daughter, Iris. Iris’s own mother has recently died and the girls are motherless, but now each has a sister. The two are as different as salt and pepper, but together they add zest to what could otherwise be uneventful lives.

The book has a surprisingly large number of significant characters who appear like traffic cops signaling directions. Bloom moves her characters from Ohio to Hollywood to Brooklyn – and points beyond. Yet, no one is superfluous.

Love, both carnal and platonic, is a major force, but the strongest elements are familial connections. Eva and Iris support each other’s strengths: Eva has brains, Iris has beauty. Both have limited common sense. The appeal of Bloom’s writing escalates as the friends/family they add to their circle grows. At times it seems far-fetched, but mostly it’s a matter of luck, the kind we all know: good and bad.

Lucky Us
Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2014
240 pages

A Good Taste of Fiction   Leave a comment

18167006

If Ruth Reichl published her grocery lists, I’d read them. I’ve enjoyed all her books and remember many editorials/stories from her days prior to and at Gourmet magazine. She’s high on my list of someone I’d to meet – although I’m sure I would say nothing to make a positive impression.

Delicious! is Reichl’s first work of fiction. Previously, her focus was nonfiction, but a story teller as good as Reichl can make words and images come alive no matter the genre. The novel blends Reichl’s knowledge and passion for food with the publishing business, restaurant world and thriving culinary scene of New York City. The story follows Billie Breslin as she lands her first job as an editorial assistant with Delicious!, a Gourmet-like magazine with an expansive history.

Billie has secrets, including an aversion to cooking despite having a palate that easily identifies all the ingredients in whatever she tastes. Billie is the focus, but Reichl also introduces a diverse cast of characters, including,  James Beard peripherally. Billie and a colleague discover letters written to Beard by Lulu Swan, a young girl from Akron, Ohio. As Lulu’s story unfolds it’s not just her correspondence with Beard that grows, but Billie does, too. She evolves from a self-deprecating young woman to a more confident and lively person. Billie’s transformation from ugly duckling is predictable, but still enjoyable.

The fun continues as Billie embarks on a quest to discover what happened to Lulu and recognizes the richness of her own life.

Delicious!
Four+ Bookmarks
Random House, 2014
380 pages

Walking Out of Character   Leave a comment

Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry begins as a slow, methodical, unexpected journey – for the main character and the reader. Rachel Joyce’s novel practically crawls through the first few chapters. Then, like Harold, it picks up the pace only to falter on occasion like most adventures.

This poignant tale shares qualities of a love story and mystery, but is more the former than latter. And, it’s about different types of love: romantic, familial and companionable.

After receiving a letter from Queenie, a work colleague with whom he’s lost touch, Harold sets out to mail a response. Despite the fact that he left the house without his cell phone and is dressed somewhat formally, he decides to embark on a 600+ mile trek from one end of England to the other to talk to Queenie in person. He has no backpack, water bottle, map or other equipment. In fact, he walks in boating shoes.

The elements of a mystery come in the form of questioning the relationship between Harold and Queenie, as well as between Harold and his estranged son, David. There’s also the fact that Harold is married, although he and his wife, Maureen, do little more than share a past and the same house.

The characters’ imperfections are what make the story work, albeit inconsistently. As personalities evolve, foibles become more defined, but so do strengths. Harold loses his way in more than one manner, but he, like the reader, gains perspective even if it is not particularly satisfying.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Three Bookmarks
Random House, 2012
320 pages