Archive for the ‘Random House’ Tag

Opening Up to the Unknowns   Leave a comment

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Reading The Power of Strangers made me think about how I interact with people I don’t know, which I suspect is among author Joe Keohane’s  goals. He presents  a lot to consider in an entertaining, applicable, albeit often research-heavy, manner.

Through interviews with psychologists, anthropologists,  and average citizens , among others, Keohane identifies the good feelings resulting from an exchange, no matter how brief, with those with whom we share our world. Engaging in such interactions isn’t all about personality type. Innate fears of rejection and lack of trust often inhibit extending ourselves.

Examples of other cultures where the importance of an initial greeting determines the safety of those involved are referenced. Details are shared about individuals in public spaces who encourage strangers to share their stories or simply talk about whatever is on their minds.

The work is split into three sections: “What Happens When we Talk to Strangers;” “Why Don’t We Talk to Strangers;” and “How to Talk to Strangers.”

Admittedly, sometimes I don’t want to talk to someone I don’t know: for example, when on a plane in the middle of a good book. I always acknowledge people and try to establish eye contact. And, when ignored, I am disgruntled. I live in a place where I encounter fellow hikers on beautiful trails. There is usually some exchange of trail talk. Keohane likely would consider this a start, but for a more meaningful connection he offers a lot of interesting ideas worth reading about.

The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

328 pages (includes index)

A Celebration and Lament   Leave a comment

Punctuation in Elizabeth’s Strout’s new novel, Oh William!, is important to note. There’s no comma after Oh and the exclamation mark is, indeed, a point of emphasis. Those who’ve read Strout’s previous works will be familiar with William’s ex-wife, Lucy Barton. If introduced here to Lucy for the first time, there’s enough about her past and how it factors into her relationship with William.

To say they’re cordial to one another is an understatement; though long divorced, they are friends, even confidantes, but certainly not lovers. They have two grown daughters, share holidays and are, simply, part of each other’s lives.

Each remarried years ago, although Lucy’s second husband is deceased and William’s third wife has recently left him.

Strout’s writing is terse, efficient and occasionally melancholy. Told from Lucy’s perspective, the narrative focuses on William and, significantly, his late mother. When William discovers a family secret he’s compelled to learn more. A road trip ensues and he asks Lucy to join him. She agrees.

Lucy notes early in the novel that William has always exuded confidence something that manifested itself in his position as a scientist and NYU professor. As a writer, Lucy is observant, attune to those around her.  Through her eyes, the reader witnesses William’s certainty begin to diminish, while her own grows stronger.

The title can be read as both a lament (even sans comma) and celebration; both are fitting. Oh William! is a testament to the power of friendship, especially as one ages. Hurray Lucy!

Oh William!

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

241 pages

A Life in the Kitchen   Leave a comment

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I enjoy reading books about chefs probably because I like food. I’ve never been to Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin, a three star Michelin rated New York City restaurant, but I have heard of him.

His memoir, 32 Yolks, recounts his childhood in southern France, his first encounters with fine dining and his journey to becoming a renowned chef. Unfortunately, the account lacks personality. It’s bland, More flavoring is needed in the form of humor and descriptions of food lack vibrancy.

As a child, and later young adult, Ripert was happiest when cooking was part of the scene, whether it was in his mother’s, grandmothers’ or a friend’s kitchen. His parents divorced when he was six and his father died soon afterward. In an effort to alleviate her son’s sadness, Ripert’s mother took him to a dinner at an exclusive restaurant. This led to a long-standing friendship with the chef/owner.

Ripert attended culinary school, which he explained, didn’t fully prepare him for what actually takes place in a restaurant kitchen. He had to learn that the hard way.

The title comes from one of his first kitchen duties: to break 32 eggs for a hollandaise sauce. An undertone of self-deprecation comes through in Ripert’s first professional kitchen experiences, yet it rings false. Hard knocks are a way of life, but his memories of working on the line are soft.

Still, learning about how people get to where they are today is of interest.

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line

Three Bookmarks

Random House, 2016

247 pages

Love and Espionage   Leave a comment

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

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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