Archive for the ‘relationships’ Tag

Love in the time of chaos   Leave a comment

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez  is beautifully written with tough themes portrayed with a disarming touch. Abandonment, betrayal, family secrets, relationships, rebellion and politics are among the many themes throughout this debut work.

Olga and her older brother, Prieto, were abandoned by their mother, a revolutionary for Puerto Rico’s independence. The children were raised in Brooklyn by their father, a former activist, before dying from AIDs, the result of his heroin addiction.  Relatives, especially their grandmother, took charge. Despite this rocky upbringing, Olga and Prieto are seemingly successful adults. She’s a wedding planner and he’s a congressman.

Although their mother never returns to see them, she is aware of their lives as proven in the sporadic letters written to Olga. The letters, sent from 1990 to 2016, are like harsh lectures about Puerto Rico’s history.

The narrative begins in July 2017 leading to before and after the devastating hurricanes that struck the island. Olga’s life is filled with her business, her relationships with her family, clients and a new romance. Prieto is a popular politician in his Brooklyn community, although Olga and others soon wonder about his recent voting record.

The characters are vibrant and the settings, Brooklyn and Puerto Rico, are vivid. Olga is a likeable. She credibly weathers her personal storms. Her circumstances, and her family’s, may be different than those of many readers. Yet, Gonzalez makes them relatable.

Olga’s mother is harsh in denouncements of the status quo. Although her methods are questionable, her cause isn’t.

Olga Dies Dreaming

Four+ Bookmarks

Flat Iron Books, 2021

373 pages

Living With Tragedy   Leave a comment

I recently discovered the unexpected pleasure of Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One, which had been buried in my nightstand stack. (The unforeseen is or should be, after all, one of the joys of picking up a new book.)

Through richly developed characters, smooth transitions of the progression of time and several relatable subthemes, Anshaw has crafted a meaningful story about the impact of tragedy – even when there are degrees of separation from it.

Soon after Carmen’s wedding reception, five guests including her siblings Alice and Nick and their partners Maude and Olivia, who are all on drugs or drunk, are involved in an accident. On a dark, deserted road their car runs over a young girl.

Each passenger, as well as the wedding couple, deal with the accident in different ways. Olivia, who was driving is sent to prison where she undergoes a dramatic personality change. Alice immerses herself in her art by painting portraits of the deceased girl as she would have grown up. Carmen, who was not in the car, engages in community activism; and Nick, who is overwhelmed with guilt, tries to overcome his addictions in order to be the man Olivia insists he become.

Their success in their respective endeavors varies as time passes. This progression is smooth. It’s subtly indicated through someone’s birthday, a current event and the age of a beloved dog – among other observations.

Anshaw incorporates wry humor in this engaging, relevant narrative while portraying vivid emotional pain through familial and romantic love.

Carry the One

Four+ Bookmarks

Simon & Schuster, 2012

253 pages

Lives collide through writing and reading   Leave a comment

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being philosophically considers the relationship between writer and reader. It’s an intriguing idea connected to numerous topics shared from the two main characters’ perspectives: one from Nao writing a diary; the other through Ruth as her reader.

Nao is a 16-year-old girl whose family recently returned to Tokyo from Northern California where she’d lived most of her life. She plans to write in her diary about her 104-year-old great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun. However, the more Nao writes, the less it’s about Jiko. Instead, she details the bullying she endures in her new school, her father’s depression and his suicide attempts. As Nao writes, she addresses her reader as if it is a single person. After all, reading is a solo experience.

Through unknown circumstances, the diary washes up on a sparsely populated island in Western Canada where Ruth and her artist/naturalist husband live. The book is in a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a collection of letters and an antique wristwatch. The letters are another cause for intrigue as Ruth discovers they were written by Nao’s uncle, a kamikaze pilot.

Ozeki describes the unforgiving conditions of island life; it’s not a place of sandy beaches and calm seas. Rather, the threat of powerful storms, rocky terrain and limited access to goods and services requires resilient residents.

As Ruth reads she comes to care about Nao and her family; she even searches for their whereabouts.  Nao, of course, knows nothing of Ruth’s existence.

A Tale for the Time Being

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2013

422, includes appendices

AIDS, Friendship and Acceptance   Leave a comment

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The Great Believers begins in 1985 Chicago when a group of friends, who’ve been excluded from a funeral, gather to celebrate Nico’s life. He died of AIDS. It’s early days of the epidemic and their friend’s death foretells of what lies ahead for many.

Yale Tishman is among the group, as is Fiona, younger sister of the deceased. Nico’s parents kicked him out of the family home years ago, but Fiona stayed in contact providing him food, money and support as best she could. Consequently, she grew up around Nico’s circle of friends, including Yale.

Time is an element of Rebecca Makkai’s novel which alternates between Chicago 1985/86 and Paris 2015. The earlier period focuses on Yale. He’s a development director for an art gallery, is in a monogamous relationship and comes across as an intelligent, sensitive young man. Through Fiona he’s put in touch with her aunt with an art collection from the 1920s Yale tries to secure for his gallery.

The latter time frame follows Fiona to Paris in her attempt to locate her estranged daughter and granddaughter. The younger Fiona is more interesting than the older version. She took care of Nico, and many of his friends, as they contracted AIDS. She apparently exhausted her caretaking abilities when it came to her immediate family.

Still, the beauty of the novel lies in the power of friendship and acceptance. Yale, and others, faced threats and, initially, medical care for AIDS patients was scattered, at best.

The Great Believers

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2018

421 pages

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

Ageless Friendship   Leave a comment

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot: A Novel: Cronin, Marianne:  9780063017504: Amazon.com: Books

The 100 Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin is about the sustaining and enduring power of friendship. Lenni is the 17-year-old narrator hospitalized with “life-limiting” cancer –  usually referred to as terminal. She meets 83-year-old Margot and an immediate bond is formed. Between them is a 100-year-old life.

Lenni’s acerbic, insightful humor is beyond her age. This isn’t a criticism; it makes sense given her situation. She’s a no-nonsense teen who doesn’t get to live the life of a healthy teenager. She still manages to sling attitude, though. Yet, she makes the most of her situation: she’s curious, so she meets with the hospital chaplain; she creative, so she has the idea to collaborate with Margot to share their life stories through art. Each painting is associated with a particular and significant situation, which they reveal to each other. The result, besides bringing them closer, is a compelling narrative rich with life’s joys and sorrows.

Lenni’s parents never visit, which is eventually explained. Whether intentional or not, Lenni creates her own family within the hospital. Father Arthur, New Nurse , Paul the Porter, the Temp and Pippa the art teacher are those with whom she has meaningful relationships.

Cronin’s characters are vividly portrayed. The novel is both heartwarming and heart wrenching. After all, the word terminal is stated on page one. The friendship with Margot transcends age. Although Lenni will never have Margot’s experiences, she’s able to appreciate what life does offer, and everyone is enriched by knowing Lenni.

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot                                                                                Four+ Bookmarks                                                          HarperCollins, 2021                                                                            326 pages, plus Reading Group Guide and Author Interview                                                                         

A Different Perspective   Leave a comment

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Nella Rogers is proud of herself for getting her foot in the door of a New York City publishing company. She assumes her presence alone should cause people to think about race. Yet, in the two years since her hiring, she’s made little effort in changing the office culture. She is the only woman of color until Hazel arrives; suddenly Hazel is seen and heard where Nella never was before.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl addresses several topics and formats in one swift effort. First is the issue of race, but it is from the Black perspective. What initially appears to be a narrative about the lives of two Black women with different life experiences evolves into espionage; it becomes a mystery of sorts.

Nella grew up in a suburb among few Blacks; Hazel’s background is much different: she grew up in Harlem.  Hazel immediately ingratiates herself among the office staff, including Nella’s boss. A book under consideration for publication is troublesome to Nella because she views it as racist, but is reluctant to say so. When Hazel encourages her to speak up, things begin to change, but not as expected.

The novel includes two time periods: 1983 and 2018. The connection between the two isn’t fully addressed until the end. This, along with several threatening notes left at Nella’s desk, creates tension and intrigue. Inconsistencies in some of Hazel’s story cause Nella to suspect her colleague and make the reader wonder which one is the other black girl?

The Other Black Girl

Four Bookmarks

Atria Books, 2021

357 pages

Bound by Generations   Leave a comment

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Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia is a novel I wanted to fall in love with. Unfortunately, despite it having so many elements I’m drawn to, that didn’t happen.

With the exception of a Mexican immigrant and her young daughter, Garcia’s debut work focuses on the women in a Cuban family, several generations removed. Immigration, abuse, mother/daughter relationships, addiction, miscommunication and loss are brought together through glimpses into each woman’s life. The result is a disjointed narrative.

Loss is the most dominant thread, beginning with Maria Isabel in a cigar-rolling company in rural Cuba in 1866. As the only female roller, hers was the most compelling story. To keep the workers engage, a man read either from a novel or newspaper until war made it impossible to continue.

The next chapter is a leap to Miami 2014, where Jeanette, Maria Isabel’s great-great granddaughter is a grown woman and substance abuser. She’s a much less engaging character; yes she makes poor choices, but more is needed than illustrations of her bad decisions. Although she briefly helps the young daughter of the Mexican neighbor who’s apprehended by ICE, there’s little else appealing about her.

The characters need to be fully developed. It’s as if they’re faded photos without any nuance.  While this is a work of fiction, the experiences the women endure are important because, unfortunately, they’re not unique.  The impact would be greater if, instead of multiple situations, more details were limited to only a few.

Of Women and Salt

Two-and-a-half bookmarks

Flatiron Books, 2021

207 pages

Testing Maternal Instincts   3 comments

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As disturbing as The Push is by Ashley Audrain, it’s nearly impossible to put down. It’s not exactly like watching a disaster unfold before your eyes, but it’s close.

Blythe Connor’s mother was not an exemplary maternal role model; although they never met, neither was Blythe’s grandmother. Audrain offers some background about these women, which helps explains the younger woman’s anxiety about becoming a mother herself. The pressure is magnified by her husband, Fox, who’s certain she’ll be a Mother of the Year candidate.

After their daughter, Violet, is born, Fox is the parent of choice;  Mother and daughter never bond. Initially, Blythe is certain it’s her fault; however, as Violet gets older, Blythe becomes convinced she’s not entirely to blame. Something isn’t right with Violet, and Fox refuses to acknowledge it.

Blythe and Fox’s marriage falls apart, something revealed early in the novel.  Audrain uses a direct address approach to Fox for Blythe to explain her side of the story. She recounts falling in love with him in college, the early days of their marriage, and Violet’s birth which marks the beginning of problems.  She tries to rationalize the issues with Violet are only in her imagination. When the couple has a second child, Blythe is surprised by her deep feelings for him.

Audrain has crafted a profound, often dark, family portrait. Blythe is a sympathetic character, but the haunting question is whether or not she’s a reliable narrator. The result is compelling.

The Push

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Pamela Dorman Books, 2021

307 pages

Checking Out Life’s Choices   Leave a comment

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The Midnight Library is a point between life and death rather than a repository for books. The premise of Matt Haig’s novel is based on life choices with all of its regrets and often overlooked joys. Some decisions are major and others less so, but all have an impact. This is not a duh discovery, though. Instead, Haig offers, through Nora Seed, the opportunity to experience parts of her unchosen lives until she finds the one she’s actually meant to live.

Depressed, alone and uninspired, Nora decides she’s better off dead.  Immediately following her suicide attempt, she finds herself at the Midnight Library which her high school librarian oversees. There are no other patrons and all of the shelves contain books about the different paths Nora might have taken based on her actual family, interests and relationships.

Thinking about the literal road not taken (yes, Frost’s poem is referenced) is engaging. There’s an element of mystery as Nora opens one book after another while trying to the find the right life. Although she considers many, time is running out. Nora needs to make a decision before her death becomes a point of no return.

Nora’s successes and pitfalls involve the usual: love, friends, family and career choices. With each book she opens, Nora learns more about herself and the world around her. There’s a sense of Ebenezer Scrooge’s experience here. Nora gets a wake-up call regarding her life, which, as it turns out, isn’t such a bad thing for anyone

 The Midnight Library

Four Bookmarks     

Viking, 2020

288 pages