Archive for the ‘relationships’ Tag

Cooking, Camaraderie and Courtship   Leave a comment

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Give me a well-written book about food with recipes and I’m a happy reader. Cooking for Mr. Latte is Amanda Hesser’s account of how she met her husband, meals with family and friends and writing about food for The New York Times.

I’m no fan of the cover, but this is enjoyable. Hesser’s sense of humor is self-deprecating, but insightful. Her food knowledge is impressive and many of the recipes included at the end of the chapters are ones I want to try. Although some are more daunting than I’m willing to venture, most are enticing without being too challenging.

Mr. Latte is the name the author ascribes to her now husband. Their ideas about food are not at all on the same plate when they first meet. As the relationship grows, each makes concessions as their palates and dining encounters expand.

Hesser describes meals – those in restaurants and those at home – along with the role they have in creating and maintaining close friendships.

The courtship between the author and Mr. Latte is the main thread of the narrative with each chapter a vignette of her life as a writer, single female and foodie in New York City. Visits to her grandmother on the Chesapeake Bay illustrate the importance of family and the comfort of family meals. Her meeting with her future in-laws includes the combination of excitement and angst many can connect with. This isn’t quite a diary, but close. These aren’t private thoughts Hesser shares, but relatable experiences.

Cooking for Mr. Latte
Four Bookmarks
W.W. Norton & Co., 2003
336 pages (includes index)

While We’re on the Subject   Leave a comment

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The life phase Kiley Reid refers to in her debut novel Such a Fun Age could be one of several: mid-20s, high school, early 30s, preschool or all of the above. Each contributes to the plot. Yet this work is far more important than time frames. It’s opportune as we examine our perceptions of race and racism.

Emira Tucker is soon to be 26 and no longer eligible for coverage under her parents’ health insurance. College-educated without a clue what to do with her life, she has two part-time gigs: babysitter and typist. It’s the former that drives much of the narrative. She’s African American; Alix Chamberlain, the woman whose child she watches, isn’t. Late one Friday night, Emira is with Alix’s daughter in an upscale market when confronted by a security guard. He questions why the black woman is with a young, white a child. The exchange is recorded on a bystander’s phone. The incident has the potential to go viral, but Emira’s not interested in taking the situation further and Alix is mortified it happened at all.

Reid’s characters are smart, funny and credible. Even with her lack of ambition, Emira is likable. It’s obvious she enjoys the toddler she babysits, but as a reader I found myself wanting more her. I don’t like admitting it, this is what Alix wants, too. Alix is a character I otherwise don’t want to identify with: she’s clueless and privileged. Yet …

This is an important story told with a surprisingly light touch.

Such a Fun Age
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019
310 pages

Will Write and Love   Leave a comment

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In Lily King’s Writers & Lovers 31-year-old Casey Peabody has been working on a novel for six years. Her mother recently died, she’s in debt and she works as server. She’s ended one relationship and soon becomes involved with two other men.

There’s no smut here. Instead, King creates intrigue and empathy for Casey, who’s kind, good with dogs and kids, and lives on the fringe of Boston’s literary society. She has writer friends, becomes involved with Oscar, an established author, and Silas, a struggling writer, all while agonizing over her own work. King’s characters are warm, likable people.

If this were a play, Casey would be upstaged by Oscar’s two young sons. He’s published, widowed and is several years older than Casey. She deliberately shares little of her writing efforts with him, but his boys are awfully cute. Then there’s Silas who’s closer to her age, teaches and writes in his spare time. Silas is initially off-putting because shortly after meeting Casey and making arrangements for a date, he leaves town for an indeterminate time. Not a great way to make a good impression; although he does return, which when things get complicated.

Casey’s deceased mother is an important character. She’s who Casey would turn to about her life’s dilemmas. Instead, Casey’s left alone to figure out things for herself. The result is a back-and-forth sideline cheering for one man than the other, all while rooting for Casey to not only finish her novel, but publish it.

Writers & Lovers
Four+ Bookmarks
Grove Press, 2020
324 pages

Disappearing People   Leave a comment

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Julia Phillips’ descriptions of the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia as lonely and cold are vivid in her novel Disappearing Earth. The title is fitting given the geographic isolation and the way the people move in, then away from the plot.

Beginning with the abduction of two young girls, the narrative features a range of characters with strong, tenuous or nonexistent ties to the victims. What they share is the locale and an awareness of the missing girls.

The first chapter is called August. Subsequent chapters/months represent the passage of time and introduce another situation involving others. The result is a disconnect more suggestive of a short story collection than a novel since there’s often no resolution for the problems or experiences described. Issues range from a young woman in college with a manipulative boyfriend, to a lost dog, from ethnic traditions to dissolution of friendships or family estrangements. Nonetheless, most chapters are captivating. These are interesting people, and the rich writing of each situation only begs for more. The list of main characters included to keep track of who’s who helps.

The investigation of the missing girls is initially a priority for the police, but eventually loses momentum. By contrast, a young indigenous woman who previously went disappeared was barely acknowledged by authorities.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in the setting; it’s a character unto itself. The weather, the light and the landscape, which includes rocky beaches, densely-wooded forests and looming active volcanos, are austere – like its people.

Disappearing Earth
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
256 pages

A Puzzling Title   Leave a comment

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Family dynamics, as much as cultural expectations, are at the heart of A Place for Us. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel follows an Indian-American Muslim family. Years ago, parents Layla and Rafiq left their homes in India to establish a new life in Northern California and raise three children. Their faith determines their lifestyle, much of their social interactions, fashion and appearance.

The story begins the day before Hadia’s wedding. She is the elder sister of Huda and their brother Amar. His presence is both a reason for joy and a cause for concern. He’d been estranged – for reasons which are exhaustively detailed in the subsequent sections/chapters.

Mirza’s narrative moves to the past. First, summarizing Layla and Rafiq’s marriage; then focusing on the children as they grow up. Initially, the focus is on Hadia, but slowly shifts to Amar. Rafiq’s expectations of his daughters are few. Both sisters are obedient, studious and observant of Muslim practices; yet they have dreams and goals beyond what their parents envision.

Amar is intelligent and sensitive, but he struggles in school and questions some Muslim principles. A forbidden romance, a long-troubled relationship with Fariq and more contribute to Amar leaving his family three years prior.

The penultimate chapter returns to the wedding day, which is filled with tension felt by all the characters. In an interesting, and unexpected, change of narrator, the final chapter provides Fariq’s perspective, most notably his love for Amar. Unfortunately, slow pacing and some predictable consequences are the book’s downfall.

A Place for Us
Three Bookmarks
SPJ for Hogarth, 2018
377 pages

Breaking the Rules   Leave a comment

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A Rule Against Murder is the fourth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. I’ve been told to read the canon, comprised of 16, in order. Clearly, I have a ways to go, but what a fun journey to undertake. The problem lies in wanting to pick up the next book immediately after putting down the last.

Armand Gamache is the kind, intelligent, perceptive, chief inspector on vacation with his wife celebrating their anniversary. They are at a luxurious, remote inn where they’ve often stayed. However, this time a death occurs, which isn’t initially clear as accidental or murder, but since he is already on the scene, Gamache oversees the investigation.

Penny writes mysteries, so it’s no surprise there will be something for Gamache and his team to uncover. What’s most engaging is the slow, methodical, yet lyrical, manner the author incorporates to arrive at a possible crime, which isn’t immediate. Instead, the author describes the calm, rustic setting, the inn’s staff, the guests and, most fun of all, the Gamaches’ relationship. The scene unfolds like a travelogue for a get-away to a relaxing resort, complete with vivid, mouthwatering descriptions of the food served.

Also staying at the inn is an extended family, most of whom prove to be as unlikable as Gamache is charming. When a family member is found crushed beneath a newly erected statue commemorating the patriarch, clues are sought to determine the cause. There is no shortage of possible suspects and motives, although deciphering who remains in question.

A Rule Against Murder
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Minotaur Books, 2008
322 pages

Read This, Yes   Leave a comment

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Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes is an unconventional love story: familial and romantic. Human tragedy and honest, important contemporary issues are at its heart when the intersecting lives of two neighboring families are forever changed.

Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope are born within weeks of each other. They grow up next door to one another in a suburban town, both of their fathers are with the NYPD. Where the Gleeson home is full of activity with Kate and her two older sisters, Peter is an only child whose mother is reclusive and father stays uninvolved. Nonetheless, Peter and Kate are best friends.

Keane has crafted more than what could simply be a boy/girl next door romance. When they’re not quite 14 years old, a near-catastrophic event takes place involving the parents. Its impact is felt for the next four decades. The kids have no contact with one another for years.

Mental health, abandonment and alcoholism all contribute to the characters’ development and propel the story. The narrative is told with a wide-angle lens with changes in perspectives making for multifaceted and engaging storytelling.

The novel has the potential to languish in despair, but instead it resonates with subtle glimpses of hope and moments of real joy. The past is always close to the surface, but Keane makes it clear the future is also on the horizon. It’s less about second chances and more about acknowledging, if not outright appreciating, life’s goodness and finding the wherewithal to take one day at a time.

Ask Again, Yes
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2019
390 pages

Home and House Aren’t Synonymous   Leave a comment

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If Ann Patchett is the author, I know it’s a book I want to read. The Dutch House, her latest, was no exception and I feel rewarded for being a fan.

Danny and Maeve Conroy are siblings living in a massive estate in a Philadelphia suburb with their father, housekeeper and cook. Mrs. Conroy abandoned the family years ago, leaving Danny, who is much younger than his sister, with little to no memory of his mother. Maeve assumed the role of caretaker for her brother. Their emotionally distant father made his money as a real estate developer. When he begins to date and eventually remarries, everyone’s circumstances change.

The novel focuses on the influence of the house on Danny and Maeve’s lives as they go from its well-to-do residents to finding their own place in the world. In fact, the house is an obsession; through the years the pair visit it from a distance while parked on the street.

Patchett’s characters are interesting with quirks and personalities making them come alive in the reader’s mind. She provides their backstories, including one for the house with an unusual history, including how it got its name.

The close relationship between Danny and Maeve drives the narrative through five decades with The Dutch House metaphorically always in view. There’s a one-upon-a-time sense to the novel, complete with an evil stepmother. However, this is a sophisticated, touching look at the importance of a caring family, even if it’s just a family of two.

The Dutch House
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2019
337 pages

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

Challenging Einstein Amidst War and Love   Leave a comment

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Relativity, an impending war, Jewish struggles and romance collide in A Bend in the Stars, Rachel Barenbaum’s remarkable debut novel.

It’s 1914 Russia. The czar has placed restrictions on Jewish communities, and most males older than 12 are conscripted to fight in the war against Germany. Initially, Miri, her brother Vanya and their grandmother  maintain their comfortable lifestyle. In part, thanks to bribes but also, despite his religion, Vanya is recognized as a brilliant physicist at the university. Miri is one of the only female surgeons in the country.

Vanya is certain Einstein’s theory of relativity is inaccurate. He knows proof will provide his family the opportunity to leave Russia for America. Photos of an upcoming solar eclipse will help Vanya demonstrate his theory. Thus begins first a race to meet an American scientist before the eclipse occurs while also avoiding capture as a deserter.

Vanya’s mind holds the key to his family’s freedom. Miri’s chance encounter with a wounded solder leads the two to risk their lives as they go in search of her brother and his companion: her fiancé .

Short chapters, vivid descriptions and well-developed characters drive the narrative. The fear of capture, the threat of firing squads and the rapidly diminishing ability to trust anyone keep the reader entranced.

Barenbaum has crafted a beautiful work of fiction based on a skeleton of actual events. Readers know Miri’s journey will reach some kind of destination; still, it’s sad when it ends.

A Bend in the Stars
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks!
Grand Central Publishing, 2019
456 pages