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Archive for the ‘relationships’ Tag

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

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Murder Family Style   3 comments

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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is both engaging and unnerving. The writing accounts for the former and the subject, which the title clearly reflects, explains the latter.

Korede is the good sister. She’s older, responsible and works as a nurse. She is single but is attracted to a doctor with whom she is friends. Her looks are considered plain. Meanwhile, her sister, Ayoola, is beautiful, flippant and kills off the men she dates. She relies on Korede to, literally, clean up the mess.

Yet, Ayoola’s most recent – the third — murder leaves her sister filled with guilt. She begins to worry that the same fate will befall the doctor who has succumbed to Ayoola’s charms.

In addition to the deaths, which for the most part warrant little attention from the police, the narrative explores the sisters’ relationship with their father. He’s an abusive, powerful man, whose character is portrayed in the past tense. The more that’s shared about him, the more one has to wonder how he died, particularly given Ayoola’s penchant for murder.

Braithwaite’s novel is about the strength of sisterly love, no matter how misguided, and the way in which dreams can be so easily burst in the name of loyalty. Short chapters and the terse vivid writing make this a fast read. The characters are easily imagined and a range of emotions, from sympathy to disappointment, is evoked.  It’s clear from the beginning that Ayoola isn’t good; the real surprise comes from Korede.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer

Four Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2018

226 pages

Against the Odds   Leave a comment

 

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Fans of Trevor Noah will hear his voice when reading Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. His humor, sensitivity and ability to engage his audience are evident from the first chapter.

Noah recounts his experiences growing up in South Africa. He is the son of black South African woman and a white German father. Interracial relationships were forbidden.

Interspersed with his personal accounts of his childhood and adolescence are explanations of Apartheid. Consequently, Born a Crime not only entertains, but also educates. Hypocrisy and racial discrimination are dominant themes.

Yet, Noah learns to rely on his street smarts. He discovers early that language is a great equalizer. Thanks to his mother, English was the first language he learned. He picked up several others as a child he saw the ways his mother used language to “cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”

This was not the only important lesson from his mother. She instilled in him the importance of an education even if it took years for him to appreciate its value.

Religion, poverty and domestic violence also are addressed in Noah’s memoir. His mother was religious, to the extreme. His attempts to avoid going to church, which would be an all-day activity on Sundays, were thwarted by his mother’s deep faith.

Noah doesn’t sugarcoat his past, neither as the biracial son born out of wedlock, nor some poor decisions made in an effort to overcome economic injustice. His mother always has his back and her faith in God never wavers.

Trevor Noah: Born a Crime
Stories from a South African Childhood
Four Bookmarks
Speigel & Grau, 2016
304 pages

Love and Sacrifice   1 comment

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An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma is creatively written drawing on Nigerian folklore to tell a modern story of love, personal freedom and expectations.

Chinonso, a chicken farmer, meets Ndali, a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He convinces her not to leap, and they go their separate ways. His parents are deceased, his sister estranged. Ndali is in pharmacy school and is the daughter of a wealthy family. She tracks him down, they fall in love, and happily ever should come next.

Of course, her parents disapprove not just because he is a chicken farmer, but because he isn’t well-educated. He decides to pursue a college education knowing it will be a long process. An old friend arrives boasting of life in Cyprus where it’s easy to find a good-paying job and finish college in less time than in Nigeria. The friend makes the necessary arrangements; Chinonso sells his flock, his house, gives his friend money and leaves Ndali to become a better man.

Chinonso’s chi, inner spirit, narrates Chinonso’s story to the Igbo deities, of which there are several. Most paragraphs, directed to one or more in particular, are full of lengthy details foretelling of something ruinous to come motivated by Chinonso’s deep love for Ndali.

Chinonso believes in his decision; Ndali is less sure. His journey is a roller coaster of hope and despair, which the reader shares with Chinonso. This is far from uplifting, yet the narrative lingers long after the last page.

An Orchestra of Minorities
Four Bookmarks
Little, Brown and Co., 2019
448 pages

Ann Tyler’s Clock Dance   1 comment

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Clock Dance is distinguished from Anne Tyler’s other works because of its setting. Yes, Baltimore does figure into the plot, but not immediately. Other locales provide the initial settings. The story doesn’t come alive, though, until the main character arrives in Charm City.

Three phases of Willa Drake’s life ultimately influence her character: as a child when her mother randomly, and temporarily, leaves the family; as a college coed considering whether or not to accept a marriage proposal without finishing her degree; finally, in her sixties when she receives a call to come to Baltimore from Arizona to care for Cheryl, the 9-year-old daughter of her grown son’s injured ex-girlfriend, Denise. Yes, that’s a tenuous connection.

Before Baltimore, Willa is widowed when her boys are teenagers. They grow up, she remarries and has little communication with them. The surprise request is from Denise’s neighbor who sees Willa’s number on a list of emergency contacts. It takes some persuasion, but Willa agrees to help people about whom she knows nothing. In the process of caring for others who need her, Willa discovers a sense of belonging she hasn’t experienced.

Tyler’s characters are vulnerable, real and endearing. Cheryl is a no-nonsense kid whose strong sense of independence comes from being the daughter of a single mother. The author brings Baltimore to life through descriptions of Denise and Cheryl’s neighborhood and its quirky residents, of which there are many.

Although somewhat predictable, Clock Dance is a charming tale of the need to belong.

Clock Dance
Four+ Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
292 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

Life and relationships on Colorado’s Plains   Leave a comment

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Kent Haruf’s slow moving, methodical novels immediately embrace readers. Eventide is no exception. The setting is rural Colorado, where seasons dictate life’s pace.

Haruf reintroduces several characters from his bestselling Plainsong, including brothers Harold and Raymond McPheron, Victoria Robideaux and Colorado’s eastern plains. The McPherons, who have spent their entire lives working side by side on the family farm, have never married. Victoria, the unwed teenage mother they took in in the previous novel, is ready to leave for college with her young daughter. The impact the mother and child have had on the McPherons is tangible; their reaction to the pair leaving is parental.

Yet theirs is only part of the narrative. Holt is a small town, where, it seems, everyone is acquainted, whether personally or indirectly, with everyone else – or at least knows of their business. There’s Luther and Betty, with their two children, living on food stamps who meet regularly with a social worker, Rose. Despite her best efforts, the parents have no parenting skills and the children suffer.

Haruf describes relationships in the sparsest of terms, yet they’re vivid. Some are painful, others humorous, many loving, but all are real. For example, Betty and Luther don’t intentionally put their kids in harm’s way, but neither do they know how to protect them.

Even with the subplots involving other residents of Holt, the focus always returns to the McPherons, particularly Raymond after tragedy strikes.

Haruf uses no quotation marks and terse dialog, yet the conversations speak volumes.

Eventide
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
300 pages