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Posts Tagged ‘family drama’

I needed something that would be entertaining but not mentally taxing to read as I attended the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, a weeklong applied research methods intensive, last week. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman fit the bill. I’ve written about her books before here on bookconscious — novels and her wonderful essay collection I Can’t Complain. I love her wit, her smarts, and her wonderful writing, so  choosing this book to download was a no-brainer. I was away for 9 days and chose not to check a bag, so downloaded library books instead of packing the physical kind — I didn’t love the format, but I loved the light bag.

Good Riddance is about Daphne Maritch formerly of fictional Pickering, New Hampshire and now a New Yorker. When the novel opens, Daphne has been Kondo-ing her apartment and discards an old yearbook her mother bequeathed her. She can’t understand why on earth it was left to her. It’s for the Pickering High Class of ’68 and is dedicated to Daphne’s mother, the yearbook advisor. Over the years her mother attended many class of ’68 reunions and added commentary to her copy of their yearbook.

Daphne dumps it in the recycling like any ecologically minded apartment dweller, and her kooky neighbor finds it and starts digging into the story of the class of ’68, at first for a documentary, then a podcast. Daphne gets wound up by this and tries to prevent further embarrassment to her family, especially her father, Tom, who is getting back into the world about a year after his wife’s death. This is romantic comedy at its best, with Daphne and Tom both developing love interests while also developing theories about the yearbook and its significance. I got a kick out of the New Hampshire references as well.

A fun comedy of manners poking affectionate fun at New York, family dynamics, and social trends.

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The Computer Scientist and I went away for a short winter vacation in Maine. Before I left I packed a few books, of course, but we ended up visiting two libraries with ongoing book sales (in Cape Porpoise and Kennebunkport) and I added to my stash. I ended up reading two books I brought with me and one I bought.

First, I have been telling my elder offspring for years that I would read Tolkien. He read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy around age 12 or 13 or so, and pretty much swore off all other fiction because he said nothing else could ever live up to those books. He’s read all four books a few times. I can certainly see why he likes them. I was so wrapped up in the story that I read in the car a bit, which I don’t usually do.

I do wish I hadn’t seen the first part of the movie, because it colored the way I imagined various scenes, but I absolutely enjoyed the story and the writing and can see the many ways Tolkien has influenced other writers. I finished late Thursday evening and couldn’t get to sleep at first, thinking over what I’d read and all the details Tolkien works in. And also that there are absolutely no female characters except some vague references to “wives and children.” Interesting. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit.

On Friday I read Appointment In Samarra by John O’Hara. Other than some short stories, I don’t think I’ve ever read O’Hara. I purchased it at the Five Colleges Book Sale in part because the cover caught my eye — it’s the Penguin Classics paperback — and partly because there were two and my friend bought the other copy. Plus, I thought, here was an Important Author I hadn’t read, so I’d remedy that. I grabbed it to read on the trip because I knew it starts on Christmas.

I told the Computer Scientist I should have known from the title — a reference to a story about a man’s appointment with death, a folktale retold by W. Somerset Maugham — that it wasn’t going to be a cheery holiday read. What I didn’t realize is exactly how sad it is. O’Hara wrote about a fictionalized version of his own small city in Pennsylvania, and this book, set in 1930, captures all the social ills of the time, many of which are really still with us. Objectification of women, prejudice, classism, the power of money and influence, organized crime, addiction, corruption, social pettiness — pretty much everything ugly about society is in Appointment In Samarra. If there is a character to admire it’s Caroline, who is at least somewhat loyal, but even she seems to stubbornly avoid thinking most of the time. I found myself thinking “come on, can’t you do better than that” several times and in reference to several characters.

This novel is sort of like The Great Gatsby set in a smaller town with characters a little less rich. But at least in Gatsby there is an unrequited love that drives the excessive behavior. In Appointment in Samarra, the driving forces seem to just be greed, prejudice, and a need to prove oneself to friends and relatives, and the concomitant fear of falling short. When my reading friend who attended the book sale with me asked if I liked it, I said I was glad I read it; it’s part of the American literary canon, I admire the writing and the risk O’Hara took (he addresses “nice” women’s sexuality very directly, which shocked some reviews). But it’s a really tough story.

Along the same lines, I picked up A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge, another new-to-me Important Author. It’s a tough story too — the main characters are a couple whose marriage is strained by jealousy, financial worry, and snobbishness, and their teenagers, Madge, a young woman desperate to break away and willing to break rules to do so, and Alan, a young man trying to hold things together and at the same time, venture out on his own path as well. Bainbridge is a great observer of human nature and captures both the fears and disappointments of late middle age and the hopes and tangled feelings of youth beautifully. A Quiet Life is also a post-war story; England is still dark and damaged. The novel opens and ends with scenes taking place years after the main part of the novel, and those somewhat soften the dismal view of the family she paints. That seemed, by comparison, a bit hopeful.

A solid few days of reading, and for that, I’m glad! There is nothing like the sound of the sea and the rain and wind when you’re tucked up, cozy, with a glass of wine and a nice stack of books!

 

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I read another Europa Editions book over the weekend, The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot. It was a sweet read, veering near, but not succumbing to, saccharinity. The hero, Vincent, coaches the somewhat promising but mostly uninspired U16 team at a French soccer club. He is a loner, estranged from his mother and sister, Madeleine, because of his dysfunctional upbringing and abusive father. When Madeleine shows up and leaves his nephew, Leo with Vincent while she chases a crazy opportunity to improve her life, Vincent finds the boy strange, but they form a bond. In short order, he discovers that what makes Vincent different is Asperger’s and that it also makes him a brilliant soccer goalie. The different parts of the story aren’t all that challenging and are a little predictable, but the book is still different enough to be appealing and I enjoyed it. Vincent is fumbles with inept relationship skills, is forced to face his past (and inevitably, his sister and mother are as well), struggles to adapt his life to loving people and letting them in. I needed a relatively simple read, and I like soccer. If it sounds like I’m apologizing for liking this book, it’s because I know “heartwarming” has a bad name in literary circles. But I wanted to read about decency and kindness and people who’ve had a hard time finding a little happiness. The book doesn’t have a definitive tied-in-a-bow happy ending, but it ends on a positive note, leaving the reader feeling things will more than likely work out for the characters. I needed that. The Penalty Area is charming, and it’s easy to imagine it being a film. If you need a bookish boost, you can’t go wrong with this story.

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Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and a psychologist, and both her vocations and her heritage are evident in her debut novel Salt HousesShe has a poet’s sense of imagery and language, her book is the story of Palestinian displacement over several generations, and her insights into the psychological wounds of war, statelessness, and resettlement are astute and moving. While I haven’t experienced being a refugee, I’ve volunteered with resettlement so I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of people who are at once American and something else, people who feel they belong everywhere and nowhere.

The main characters of Salt Houses are the progeny of Salma, matriarch of a family living in Nablus when the book opens. It is 1963 but the pain of fleeing Jaffa fifteen years earlier is fresh for Salma. Her younger daughter Alia is about to marry Atef, who is Alia’s brother Mustafa’s best friend. They live well in Nablus, even though Salma is a widow. The book moves forward a few years at a time, and in 1967, Nablus, too becomes a part of their past, when the Six-Day War scatters them. Salma goes to Amman, Alia and Atef join Alia’s older sister and her husband in Kuwait City. As you may recall, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait City in 1990, and so Alia’s generation is the next to flee a war with a fraction of their belongings, leaving behind jobs, neighbors, and a home. Alia’s children end up even more scattered, in Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Amman. In Beirut they again experience war, although they don’t flee. By the end of the book, Alia’s grandchildren travel from many countries to visit with her and Atef. Life goes on around them, but each generation retains the sense that within themselves, they are never far from where they come from, wherever they go. And where they come from, originally, is Palestine.

Through it all, Atef lives with trauma from the 1967 war that he can manage only by writing letters in secret in his study, letters he can never send. He also copes by focusing on his children, being present with them so that he doesn’t slip into the past. Alyan describes Atef’s feelings for his firstborn, “. . . he loves Riham beyond reason, a love tinged with gratitude, for when she was first placed in his arms, tiny and wriggling and red-faced, he felt himself return, tugged back to his life by the sound of her mewling. The arrival of Riham restored something, sweeping aside the ruin of what had come before.”

These family relationships form the heart of the story, which Alyan tells well. You want to know whether the tempestuous Alia and her equally strong willed daughter Souad will make peace, whether gentle Riham, so like her grandmother Salma, will be happy with her much older husband. Will Abdullah become radicalized? Will Manar find what she’s seeking? The many small dramas that make up a family’s life provide plenty for the reader to savor as the pages turn.

What makes this much more than a standout family saga is the greater narrative: the story of ordinary Palestinians – professional people, whose children watch too much TV and eat too much sugar, who work and worry about the same things families like theirs worry about around the world —  caught in a cycle of loss and displacement, the shadow of each generation’s pain resting on the next. They are resilient, and fortunate in many ways, but also perpetually grieving for what could have been, perpetually speaking with the wrong accent, and yet perpetually seeking and making home wherever they are.

This is a beautiful book and an important one. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have only a tenuous understanding of the Middle East, and even though this is a novel it gets at human truth in a universally recognizable way.  Definitely, we should all learn the facts of the region’s history and geopolitics, but it can’t hurt to also try to understand the feelings of people who just want the best for their families, as my wise grandmother used to say. whenever we talked about places caught up in conflict. Salt Houses offers one way to begin to understand.

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All Right Here, by Carre Armstrong Gardner, is published by Tyndale House, a Christian publisher. I buy fiction for my public library and I know “inspirational” (mainly Christian) fiction is big business. I figured the demand comes from a sizable segment of the reading public that doesn’t want much sex, violence, or bad language in a book.

But Armstrong includes some of each — sex, violence, and bad language, albeit very gently portrayed — along with adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, premarital sex, and abortion. Granted the abortion serves as a plot point to explain why one of the main characters is kind of a jerk to his wife. But I was pleasantly surprised that although Gardner’s characters frequently pray and mention their faith, their actions speak louder.

Ivy Darling and her husband Nick (he of the jerky behavior) are well rounded characters and I found myself thinking I’d like to hang out with Ivy. Despite her faith, Ivy’s not always sure what she should do or what’s happening in her life. Which I appreciated.

And which makes the book a lot like mainstream women’s fiction. All Right Here is about family and friendship, possibility and love, pain and forgiveness. When the book opens, Ivy is wondering who will live in the run down house next door. It turns out a woman moves in with three kids, and one day, Ivy finds them on their porch, their mother gone. She does not hesitate to take them in.

The kids are black and “from away,” and small town Maine, most especially Ivy’s in-laws, don’t exactly embrace this unorthodox turn of events. I loved Ivy’s unequivocal open hearted compassion for the kids, and her extended family’s similar response. I also liked Nick’s honest hesitation. Gardner addresses something I’ve never read about in mainstream fiction: infertility from the husband’s point of view. And I enjoyed the fact that the path to becoming a family isn’t smooth — Nick is not instantly in love with the kids, and isn’t even sure he likes them much, and that seemed very realistic to me. As did, unfortunately, the open racism the kids face.

An overtly religious point of view isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d recommend All Right Here to readers who like inspirational fiction. Gardner writes well, and despite a few “typecast” folks, her characters are interesting, especially Ivy. The kids are too, and although the musically talented Jada and athletic Hammer are a little predictable, the teenaged DeShaun turns out to be good at inventing fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. Which is just as quirky and charming as it sounds. I appreciated that Gardner didn’t just make him a tough guy or get him in trouble, which is where the book appeared to be heading at one point.

Gardner introduces Ivy’s and Nick’s siblings and parents, but I was more interested in their new family than in the subplots. The way the book ended, and the subtitle (A Darling Family Novel), indicate sequels are forthcoming and that the next one might focus on Laura, Ivy’s troubled twin sister who isn’t too thrilled with her large, close-knit family. That story didn’t interest me as much, but I’m curious enough to want to find out what happens to Jada, Hammer, & DeShaun that I’ll be looking for the next book.

 

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Full disclosure: I’m one of those nuts who got up before dawn to enjoy uninterrupted hours of BBC America coverage of both the royal wedding and The Queen’s Jubilee.  So perhaps I’m the target demographic for Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, a debut novel from established historian and biographer William Kuhn.  I read it to write a brief review for the Concord Public Library.*

Sometimes it’s just nice to read a book you can tackle in one or two sittings, one that is witty and smart but not overbearing. Kuhn works in a variety of “issues” but I never felt like the book was messagey, even when it touches on mental health or other serious topics. Mostly I got a kick out of the clever but respectful portrayal of The Queen; we see her making marginal notes in biographies of herself, struggling with her computer and vowing not to call the IT woman again, annoyed with rogue tweets (“it’s gin o’clock!) by someone impersonating her.

There are a number of other characters, some of whom I warmed to more than others, but none of whom felt extraneous to the story. I enjoyed the train scenes very much; Kuhn’s portrayal of The Queen’s fellow passengers was terrific and reminded me of people I heard and saw on our recent trip to England. All in all, a nice little comedy of manners, which is something I always appreciate.

Here’s my review, a version of which will come out in January’s “Beyond the Bestsellers” and various other places.

Historian William Kuhn’s debut novel is reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. Queen Elizabeth II is feeling low. She decides a visit to the decommissioned royal yacht Britannia, which is moored near Edinburgh, might be just the thing to set her right again. The Queen boards an ordinary train at King’s Cross Station with a string of staff on the trail, trying to keep her safe and to keep her adventure private. Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs fans will enjoy the stories of her majesty’s dresser, lady-in-waiting, equerry, stable girl, and butler, as well as a clerk in a posh cheese shop. Kuhn weaves their stories — touching on everything from the Iraq War to class and racial stereotypes, yoga, sexual orientation, aging, environmental politics, royal and family dramas, and Twitter – into the tale of the AWOL Queen, to humorous effect. A light-hearted, entertaining read packed with interesting tidbits about contemporary British life and the royal household.

* Since I mention my job here and quote from a review I wrote for it at work, it’s a good time to remind readers that my blogs represent my views and not those of my employer, and I am writing here as a private citizen.

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