Archive for the ‘siblings’ Tag

The Breakdown of a Family   Leave a comment

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It wasn’t a single element of Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker that captured my attention. There’s the Colorado Springs* setting; a family with 12 children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia; and the nature vs nurture argument. Ultimately, all of the above held my interest.

First, it’s difficult to image a family with 12 kids; it’s mind boggling. Like most parents, Mimi and Don Galvin excelled in some areas and failed in others. Their first 10 children were boys; neither of the two youngest, Margaret and Mary (aka Lindsey), suffered from mental illness. They were, however, the victims of parental benign neglect and abuse from their brothers. The parents were successful at falconry, but their parenting techniques left much to be desired.

Don was often away on business. First when in the military and later in the private sector. He was only peripherally involved in family life. When issues arose, his attitude was a reflection of the times: boys will be boys. Mimi was left to sort out problems, and her approach was to project a glossier image than the facts portrayed.

Eventually, Mimi’s aversion to facing truths gives way to an inordinate amount of time dealing with physicians, clinics, medications and averting blame. Descriptions of the physical battles among brothers, the inability to accept what was happening to the family and the impact on the healthy children are harrowing.

Along with the Galvin family experience, Kolker details the medical community’s evolving response to schizophrenia through the years.

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
Four Bookmarks
Doubleday, 2020
377 pages, includes notes and index

*I live in Colorado Springs.

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages

Little Fires Everywhere: Read the Book First   Leave a comment

*This review was written in 2018. I thought I’d posted it, but turns out it’d been languishing in my Documents folder all this time. At least I remembered I’d read the book before watching the first episode on Hulu….

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The way families communicate with each other and the rest of the world is at the heart of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This novel falls into the can’t-put-it-down category. The characters are haunting in their embodiment of what they believe is right and wrong. When those lines are blurred, they become even more real – like people we know, or like the people we are.

Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl arrive in the upscale, planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. They rent an apartment owned by Elena Richardson, the mother four high school-aged children. Elena, who’s mostly referred to by the author as Mrs. Richardson, has lived her life as if following a recipe: step-by-step never considering substitutions or variations. Mia is an artist. She and Pearl move from place to place with the regularity of seasons. Mia promises Pearl this time, they’ll settle down.

That the families become intertwined is no surprise. The narrative opens with the Richardson’s manor-like home burning to the ground. Like bookends, this is where things wrap up.

Pearl and Moody Richardson become best friends. These are like-minded, intelligent kids who don’t quite fit in with the popular crowd like Moody’s older brother and sister. There’s also his troubled sister, Izzy, adding to the dynamics.

Little Fires Everywhere
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2017
338 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

The Intersection of Fate, Life and Death   Leave a comment

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Fate and the power of suggestion collide in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. It’s 1969 and it’s in the midst of summer’s heat and doldrums when siblings Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon Gold need a distraction. They seek out a woman known to foretell the exact date on which one will die. The children are 13, 11, 9 and 7, respectively. This seemingly-innocent adventure profoundly and ultimately affects each of their lives.

The narrative then jumps to the late 1970s. Each chapter focuses on one of the Golds, their interactions with each other, the choices they make and how that long-ago visit to the psychic is embedded in their lives.

The fortune teller, along with Eddie O’Donoghue, a police officer turned FBI agent, are characters who move in and out of the story through often unlikely scenarios. They alternately represent good and evil. Their presence is unnerving if only because they’re initially perceived as simply passing through. Yet, it becomes clear that the author doesn’t want the reader to relegate them to cameo appearances.

The Immortalists
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s sons, 201
346 pages

Food, Families and Fate   Leave a comment

The Comfort Food Diaries

Emily Nunn knows food. She wrote about it as a staff writer for The New Yorker and Chicago Tribune, among other publications. She also knows heartbreak and self-damaging behavior, which she shares in The Comfort Food Diaries.

A description of her seemingly-ideal life in Chicago where she lives with her boyfriend, dubbed “the engineer” and his lovely daughter, “the princess,” fades quickly. After Nunn learns that her brother has committed suicide she begins her own self-destructive tailspin through alcoholism and ending the romantic relationship.

Nunn reveals her backstory as she seeks to find balance in her life. The loss of her brother, her parents’ dysfunctional marriage – and ultimate divorce – her relationship with other siblings, relatives and friends fill the pages. At the suggestion of a friend, she embarks on a “comfort food tour.”

The direction of this tour is different than what I anticipated. Rather than a road trip around different parts of the country in search of consolation fare, Nunn sojourns to the places of her past and the role of food in her past and present. This isn’t a one-food-fits-all look at comfort, it is only about Nunn and her perceptions.

My family, for example, has dishes deemed “classics” in lieu of comfort foods. Not because they are universal, instead because they’re unique to us. Nunn, with her family and friends, has her own.

In addition to narrating her quest, Nunn shares recipes with her memories and new experiences. Her writing style is conversational and honest. She also knows how to whet the appetite.

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2017
310 pages

Family Ties   Leave a comment

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One house, 13 siblings, ghosts and the city of Detroit provide the foundation for The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Thank goodness she provides a family tree to keep track of Francis and Viola Turner’s offspring. It helps that much of the present-day story focuses on Cha Cha, the eldest of the Turner children, and Lelah, the youngest. They’re separated by 23 years; their issues are familiar but not quite cliches.

Flournoy also takes the reader back to 1944 when Francis leaves Viola and young son in his rural Arkansas hometown to seek a better life in Detroit. Francis plans to send for his family once he’s settled. He stays away for more than a year, leaving Viola to consider other options.

This backdrop is interspersed with how the family has coped through the years. Francis is dead, Cha Cha has grandchildren of his own; even Lelah is a grandmother. Few have intact marriages or relationships, yet the family is close-knit. The house, the one in which all 13 Turners grew up, is empty and fallen into disrepair. Viola is no longer well enough to live on her own; she lives with Cha Cha and his wife in the suburbs.

The house, vividly described with Pepto Bismo pink bedroom walls, narrow stairs and large porch reflects the rise and fall of Detroit. Once alive with the large family’s comings and goings, its monetary worth is practically non-existent. The brothers and sisters, though, are mixed in their assessment of its sentimental value.

The Turner House
Four Bookmarks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
338 pages

Family Dinners   Leave a comment

BreadandButter
Bread & Butter is bound to appeal to foodies. Author Michelle Wildgen combines her talents as a writer with her past restaurant experience to tell the story of three brothers with two competing eateries in their hometown.

Leo and Britt have been running Winesap, their fashionable restaurant for more than a decade. When their younger brother, Harry, returns home they find it difficult to be enthusiastic about his plans to open another upscale establishment in a weak economy. Yet, it’s not just the competition that has the older two apprehensive. Harry has bounced around from educational pursuits to various jobs in the years since he’s been gone. Leo and Britt are certain Harry lacks the stamina, knowledge and commitment to run a successful business. They see him as a neophyte, and Harry, who wants their support, is driven to prove them wrong.

Wildgen has created likeable, sometimes exasperating, characters whose voices and situations ring true. Eventually, Britt signs on as Harry’s partner while maintaining his front-of-house role at Winesap. Tensions mount as expectations, many unfounded, lead to several surprises when Harry’s place opens for business.

Descriptions of food, prepping for dinner service and the relationships among the employees (and owners) are vivid and realistic.

Ultimately, the siblings have credible culinary chops; they also have difficulty relinquishing family issues precipitated by birth order. This tends to bog things down a bit. Wildgen emphasizes that sometimes family members are often seen as what we want them to be, rather than who they truly are.

Bread & Butter
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Doubleday, 2014
314 pages

My Favorite Book of 2013 — So Far   2 comments

I took last week off; I read, I hiked, I ate too much, I slept some, I wrote a bit, but mostly I decided to take a break from the Blue Page Special. In the process, I discovered that I missed it.

TellWolves

I just finished reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and can’t stop thinking about it. Although the writing doesn’t fall into the take-your-breath-away category, the story certainly does. I still want to spend time with the characters: June, a 14-year-old misfit; Greta, her super-achieving sister; Finn, their deceased uncle; and Toby, Finn’s lover.

June is devastated when Finn, her best friend, dies of AIDS. She struggles, then Toby enters her life, and she continues to flounder. Except now she has someone to help her keep Finn’s memory alive. Toby and Finn lived together and, even though she spent a lot of time in their apartment, June never knew about Toby. This aspect has the potential to be implausible; instead, it enhances June’s character as a naïve teenager. Another potentially hard-to-believe feature is the bond that develops between the young girl and the thirty-something Toby.  Remarkably, there is never anything creepy or uncomfortable about it. This is largely due to their love for Finn, and the tentative manner in which their friendship evolves. Equally important is the sisters’ relationship.

Brunt masterfully creates relationships that are rich, painful, and grow before our very eyes. The novel is about friendship, first loves, misplaced jealousy and sibling relationships. Set in the mid 1980s, AIDS has just begun to make itself felt in American culture. Yet, that is simply a background element. This is a coming-of-age story that considers the way people change based on age, interests, opportunities, and circumstances.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

The Dial Press, 2012

355 pages

Family Holiday on Ice   5 comments

Mark Haddon’s The Red House is a metaphor for the definition of family;  the meaning can be obscured by comfort or serve as boundaries through which no one should cross. Haddon emphasizes the latter. Estranged brother and sister, Richard and Angela, meet for a family vacation shortly after their mother’s death. Richard’s a doctor and newly married to his second wife. Her 16-year-old daughter is part of the package. Angela and her husband have three children, but she mourns the still-born daughter she lost 18 years ago. These eight family members spend a week together in the English countryside as they tentatively reveal themselves to each other – some with better results than others.

Haddon’s approach is interesting. Each chapter represents one day of the vacation, and everyone’s perspective is provided to set the scene. Initially, it’s difficult, even confusing, keeping track of who’s who. However, as the storyline evolves, more about Angela’s grief is explained, not just from her viewpoint but her husband’s, too. Also, Richard is not as professionally secure as he projects, this from his wife.

Haddon blends the familiar (sulky teenagers) with the uncomfortable (sulky parents). Slowly, observations and experiences round out each character. Jumping from one person to another becomes less awkward. Mostly, the time together leads to everyone’s better understanding of him or herself. Haddon writes, “Behind everything there is a house … compared to which every other house is larger or colder or more luxurious.” Sounds a lot like the way all families are perceived.

The Red House
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Doubleday, 2012
264 pages