Archive for the ‘Scribner’ Tag

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

The Depth of Friendship   Leave a comment

I’m drawn to novels about women’s friendships: the premise of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See and I was not disappointed.

Set on the Korean Island of Jeju, the author provides an in-depth look at Korean culture involving female sea divers, an ever-changing political climate and the bonds of friendship that beautifully flourish before painfully disintegrating.

The elderly Young-sook narrates this captivating story of her friendship with Mi-ja. They are different in their experiences and backgrounds. Young-sook’s lineage boasts the respected sea women, divers who carefully harvest from the ocean for their livelihood. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. They learn to dive together; they share secrets, joys and losses.

As they grow-up their island undergoes numerous political changes beginning with Japanese colonialism to World War II then the Korean War. Poverty is a way of life for the villagers, but the sea women find solace beneath the water’s surface. Through vivid descriptions, See recreates the rural lifestyle of the islanders and the heartbreak they endure in war.

When marriages are arranged for Mi-Ja and Young-sook, they wonder how they’ll survive being apart from one another. Facing the harsh influences of the outside world, their friendship falters until rendered irreparable.

The progression of time is marked through the different regimes, cell phones and indoor plumbing.

Among the novel’s many beauties are the memory of the rich friendship, the presence of Mi-ja’s great granddaughter and, finally, the reader’s awareness of a single perspective being shared.

The Island of Sea Women
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Scribner, 2019
374 pages

Serving Time   Leave a comment

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Author Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a strip joint in San Francisco, where Romy Hall once gave lap dances to support herself and her young son, Jackson. That’s before she’s sent to prison in California’s desolate Central Valley, where she’s sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for a crime that’s not immediately explained.

Most of the narration is Romy’s as she recounts her childhood, teenage years and life working as a stripper. These reflections are interspersed with her confinement. It may be almost impossible to think about women in prison without Orange is the New Black coming to mind. However, Kushner’s cell scenes are harsh, unsympathetic and dismal. Nonetheless, Romy is befriended by Sammy, a veteran inmate, Conan, a transsexual who’s very convincing as a male, and Gordon Hauser, a teacher who recognizes Romy’s intelligence and beauty.

A few of the chapters are narrated by these friends. Doc, a crooked cop, imprisoned miles away, also provides a voice. Yet, it’s Romy with her sense of humor, dismay and maternal instincts who commands the pages. She has had to leave Jackson, in the care of her mother, which causes a number of complications for Romy.

Kushner blends pathos with the harsh reality of prison life. As one of the guards states, not just to Romy, but others, “… your situation is due one hundred percent to choices you made and action you took.” As we learn more about Romy and the other characters, it’s evident this is not entirely true.

The Mars Room
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2018
338 pages

Beneath the Surface   Leave a comment

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Jennifer Egan is masterful at setting the scene and evoking another era in Manhattan Beach, her recent novel. Her characters, their emotions and their resolve are captivating. The narrative is part love story, part gangster tale in an historic World War II, (mostly) New York City setting.

As a young girl, Anna Kerrigan tagged along with her father, Eddie, on his errands, presumably for the union. On one such outing, the 11-year-old and Eddie visit Dexter Styles at his mansion-like home on a private beach. It’s evident that the Kerrigans don’t share the same lifestyle as Styles.

By contrast, Anna’s family lives in a small, sixth floor apartment. Her younger sister, Lydia, is severely disabled requiring constant care.

Fast forward and Anna is now the sole provider for her mother and sister thanks to her job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where she becomes the first female diver. Her father disappeared years earlier and the country is at war.

The progression of sorrow Anna experiences regarding Eddie begins with anguish which evolves into anger before settling into indifference. For the reader, however, his long absence is hard to ignore. Egan wants it that way. Meanwhile, Styles resurfaces. Anna remembers him; even though she catches his attention, he has no recollection of her as a child.

The interactions of this trio of main characters across time, complete with back stories, hopes and foibles, provide the book’s focus.

Ultimately, it’s about reinventing oneself and the toll it takes to do so.

Manhattan Beach
Four-and-a-quarter Bookmarks
Scribner, 2017
433 pages

Moral Compass   Leave a comment

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For some reason it seems the stack of books on my nightstand never, ever shrinks. Some titles have been there for longer than I care to confess. When I saw that The Light Between Oceans has been made into a movie, it was time for me to rescue it from the mountain of titles. (If I decide to see the film I need to read the book first.)

Written in 2012, this is M.L. Stedman’s debut novel set off the rocky coast of Australia following World War I. The author provides lyrical descriptions of the harsh life of a lighthouse keeper, Tom, made more comfortable by the love and vibrant personality of his wife, Isabel.

Tom has returned from the war surprised and guilt-ridden by his survival. He is well suited to the solitary life on an isolated thread of land. It isn’t until he meets Isabel while waiting for his next lighthouse assignment that he realizes what’s been missing from his life. They marry, and after Isabel miscarries multiple times, they believe their hopes of having a family will elude them. That is until a small boat washes ashore with an infant child and a drowned man.

Tom wants to turn the baby over to authorities; Isabel does not. What follows is a succession of heartache and lies borne of love. Stedman’s characters are real, full of faults. She raises poignant questions for all involved and readers are left to consider what they might do in a similar situation.

The Light Between Oceans
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2012
343 pages

Wild Ride   1 comment

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I wasn’t aware of the 1983 Glen Canyon Dam crisis, nor of an effort to achieve the fastest ride through the Grand Canyon until reading The Emerald Mile. Keven Fedarko presents an engrossing, at times lyrical (and occasionally overwhelming) account of the events that led to three men hurtling down the Colorado River in a wooden boat.

Fedarko introduces a cast of characters from John Wesley Powell to park rangers, from boat builders to hydrologists, from river rats to tourists – among others. Historic, meteorological, hydrologic and recreational elements – again, to name a few – are all addressed. Fedarko’s writing is based on thorough research that serves the purpose of illustrating the myriad of components that made the river run possible while addressing aspects that threatened its fulfillment.

The author is a master of the backstory. His writing is much like the river he describes: full of excitement and the unknown, then calm. And, he apparently leaves no stone unturned. Although this is a work of fiction, it has the feel of a mystery: how is Kenton Gura, the man who captained the small, hand-built dory named the Emerald Mile, going to pull off the adventure of a lifetime? This same sense of intrigue is evident in the passages concerning the efforts to thwart a dam failure while dealing with the effects of a massive snow melt: the effect of El Nino.

This work makes me not only want to revisit the Grand Canyon, but also to tour the dams at either end.

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in history Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2013
415 pages (includes notes and index)

Two Kings Are Better Than One   2 comments

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Fidel Castro is never identified by name in Cristina Garcia’s King of Cuba, but it’s easy to fill in that blank. The novel should be entitled The Kings of Cuba because the two main characters share a passion for the island nation and philandering. The difference is that one is a despot and the other an exile: the former in Cuba and the latter in Miami.

Both are nearing the end of their lives. Although El Commandante (also referred to as the tyrant and El Lider) remains vain, he can see his failing body reducing his political power. Goya Herrera wants nothing more than to help the tyrant’s life to a speedy conclusion. Goya’s disdain for the Cuban leader is tied to a lost love and living as an expatriate. It doesn’t matter that Goya’s life has been financially successful.

Alternating between El Commandante and Goya’s voice, other perspectives regarding Cuban history also are included in the form of footnotes. At first, this is annoying – as footnotes usually are. Eventually, they’re entertaining and edifying.

Goya’s family life is in ruins; his wife is deceased and his grown children have few positive attributes. By contrast, the tyrant has progeny he doesn’t even know about. The legacies they will leave behind are entirely shaped by the history they helped create. The tyrant led his country into a revolution that lasted 50 years, and the  businessman personifies the American Dream.

Garcia’s disarming narrative combines history with satire, and Castro’s presence is felt on every page.

King of Cuba
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Scribner 2013
235 pages