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Archive for the ‘Riverhead Books’ Tag

Samba, Memories and Regrets   1 comment

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The Air You Breathe by Frances De Pontes Peebles gifts readers with an expansive, beautifully-written view of the ebbs and flows of deep friendships.

Dores, whose existence is shaped by her role as an orphan on a Brazilian sugar plantation, narrates the story. Her life changes when Graca, the spoiled, young daughter of the sugar cane baron, arrives. The two are opposites in every way. It is no surprise that their attraction is the impetus for their future endeavors.

Since there are no other children her age, Graca’s parents enlist Dores as playmate and study companion for their daughter. Despite spending much of her life up to this point working in the kitchen, Dores is a good student, much better than her friend.  Yet, Garca possesses all of the advantages that will contribute to her success: beauty, a mesmerizing voice, a strong will and privilege.

The narrative begins with Dores looking back on her past, specifically the success of Graca, who becomes legendary Samba singer Sofia Salvador. The trajectory from rural Brazil to Rio de Janeiro to Hollywood is more than a rags-to-riches story. Each chapter begins, or ends depending on perspective, with the lyrics Dores has written and made famous by Sofia/Graca.

The characters are lively, the street scenes vibrant and the pulse of the 1930s and ‘40s sets the rhythm. The connection between the two women is full of joy and anguish, frustration and pride. Dores and Graca need each other, despite often wishing this was not the case.

The Air You Breathe
Five Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
449 pages

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Best of Friends   Leave a comment

The Friend

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez comes across as a letter to an intimate, erudite companion and also a series of journal entries about grief. Yet, it’s a story, in fact a novel, a work of fiction.

The nameless female narrator mourns the death of a dear friend, a relatively successful (male) writer, who has committed suicide. He, too, is unnamed, as are many of the characters, who are mostly peripheral, such as Wife One, Wife Three and Grumpy Vet. Some of the narrator’s graduate students are identified as someone “I’ll call …,” but only the super of her New York City apartment and a Great Dane are ascribed monikers.

Reluctantly, she takes the deceased man’s dog, Apollo, since no one else wants him; he’s old and massive. Like her, the dog also grieves. Apollo’s presence brings changes and not just to her lifestyle — despite her small apartment in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Previously, she’d only had cats. This is no immediate transformation. She recognizes he is a tie to her friend and she is not alone in her sorrow.

Nunez’s novel is also about writing. The narrator is a college English teacher. She cites writer after writer on death, grief, dogs, teaching, love and writing. Just as the woman recounts her memories of her close bond with the writer, her connection with Apollo transforms. She no longer sees him as a burden, so the question remains who is the friend: the dead writer, the narrator or the dog?

The Friend
Almost four bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
212 pages

Sculpting a Life From Wax   Leave a comment

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Period novels usually aren’t my thing. It could be the often flowery language, the popular use of first person narrative, the topic, the je ne sais pas. Little by Edward Carey, while guilty of the above, including the French, is captivating. The story, based on the early life of Madame Tussaud known for her wax sculptures of celebrities, is rich with humor, pathos, historical references and lively characters.

Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Marie, as she was generally called until her diminutive size warranted the nickname “Little,” recounts her family background. She literally begins with her birth. Interspersed among the details of her life are drawings. The first identified as “Drawn by herself. In graphite, charcoal, and black chalk. (This being a likeness of her pencil.)” It’s difficult not to smile, although not all of the subsequent illustrations are humorous.

As a child, her life circumstances dramatically change following the death of her parents when she’s relegated to becoming a servant. Yet, Little is witty, intelligent and has a sharp power of observation: Traits that serve her well as her creativity and talents expand.

Little learns the craft of waxwork from the odd Dr. Curtius, who at first sculpted body parts and organs out of wax. Initially, he treats her as a ward. When the pair moves to Paris from Switzerland, her station is reduced to kitchen maid.

Carey’s epic follows the French Revolution with Little’s indomitable spirit whose name bears no reflection on her inner strength and kindness.

Little
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
435 pages

Revelations of a Priest’s Daughter   Leave a comment

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There is something both intriguing and off-putting about the title of Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. Greg, her father was, indeed, a priest in the Catholic Church. This was possible, she writes because her father “snuck past” the rule prohibiting priests from marrying. The real loophole is that a married minister of another denomination can, apparently, seek dispensation from Rome to be ordained as a priest. Pope Benedict XVI approved the request. Father Greg didn’t have to annul his marriage, nor abandon his children. Although, in many ways, as evident in the family stories Lockwood shares, he did.

The author’s tone is humorous and irony is evident throughout. Yet, there is too much cleverness. Her dad’s faith is never depicted as having much depth. Perhaps it is her effort to reveal him as an ordinary, not a holy, man. Even in that regard, he is far from conventional. After all, he lounges around in his boxers and has an extensive (and expensive) guitar collection. In fact he purchases a rare guitar soon after telling his daughter there aren’t funds for her college education.

Despite the title, Lockwood doesn’t focus her attention entirely on her dad. Her mother, her sisters, nieces, nephews and her husband also have prominent places in the narrative. So does a seminarian, who isn’t married and likely does not have kids.

Lockwood is, in fact, a published, award-winning poet. The images and emotions she conveys are vivid, but her often self-mocking tone and airing family laundry quickly wear thin.

Priestdaddy
Three Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
333 pages

Posted October 21, 2018 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , ,

Refugees, love and peace   Leave a comment

Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is part parable and entirely too timely.

Hamid’s story follows Nadia and Saeed who meet in an unnamed war-torn country. She is distanced from her family because of her strong desire for personal independence. He lives with his devoutly religious parents. The two fall in love as the world around them crumbles.

Through a series of doors, which conjure images of Alice in Wonderland or Platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter’s world, the couple escape from one refugee situation to another. The settings include the Greek island of Mykonos, London and Marin, California. They are different and in many ways similar to one another. Of course, the common factor is the large number seeking refuge from countries all over the world.

Although, the narrative is important because the question of immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers is something facing most Western countries, it is also heavy-handed. There is no doubt this is a serious issue with no easy steps toward resolution. Ultimately, the story is less about Saeed and Nadia. They’re simply the vehicle making the journey but the matter of what to do with the influx serves as the passenger.

Hamid’s writing is stark, yet evocative. There is a sense of fear and relief from one passage to the next. There’s a feeling of hope, initially for Saeed and Nadia, but eventually for something larger. Yet, something in the telling of the story falls short. Perhaps, because it’s somewhat fantastical, but mainly because the characters never truly come to life.

Exit West
3 Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2019
231 pages

Disconnecting the Dots   Leave a comment

 

A Separation

The narrator in Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, is never named. Nonetheless, we learn other, more intimate details about her.

The title has multiple implications beginning with the fact that the narrator is separated from her husband, Christopher, and has been for six months. The couple has not announced the split; in fact, the pair has promised vowed to continue waiting before going public with the news.

Kitamura is terse in her descriptions. Yet her characters are well-developed, even the ones we never actually meet. Christopher, for example, has gone missing in Greece. Still, he is seen through the narrator’s eyes and experience.

In London, his mother Isabella, who is unaware of any change in Christopher’s marital status, contacts the narrator since messages to her son have gone unheeded. In just a few sentences, Kitamura deftly portrays the uncomfortable relationship the women share. Isabella is incredulous that her daughter-in-law has no idea of Christopher’s exact whereabouts. Both know he is in Greece and the resort hotel he checked into, but nothing beyond that.

What ensues is the narrator’s trip to Greece in search of the man from whom she is no longer in love. He’s not been seen at the hotel for several days, although all of his belongings are still there.  She’s curious,  but her heart isn’t in it. Her voice is stoic, matter-of-fact, with occasional flashes of anger or disappointment as she discovers new secrets and is placed in the awkward position of being presumed a devoted wife.

A Separation
(Barely) Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
229 pages

Love and Vengeance   Leave a comment

My favorite passage by Lauren Groff is where she signed my copy of Fates and Furies at the request of my son Tim’s girlfriend. Groff wrote: “Robin – Mariana is the most beautiful and wonderful, isn’t she!” The answer is yes. It is such a stark contrast to the tenor of the novel; I’m led to believe that Groff doesn’t have it out for everyone, which is a comforting thought.

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The novel is divided into two categories: fates and furies. The first section begins with newlyweds, Lotto and Mathilde, consummating their marriage on the beach, but he is the focus here. It’s all about him: childhood, banishment from his family to boarding school, college days and efforts to succeed as an actor are portrayed in detail; but not too much as to squelch the imagination. Little is revealed about Mathilde – until furies, which is aptly named.

In an effort to avoid the need for spoiler alerts, suffice it to say there are elements of Gone Girl meets Claire Underwood.

Groff’s writing is clever, humorous and rich in detail. The references to various plays and Greek tragedies, however, are distracting metaphors.

Full of unlikable characters, the book, nonetheless, was appealing. Lotto’s a selfish man who exudes charm. Real charm, not something he turns on and off at will. Mathilde is mysterious and bitchy. They are flawed thanks to the characteristics Groff imbues in them. Neither is someone I want to meet, but I was more than content to know them through the distance of fiction.

Fates and Furies
Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2015
391 pages