Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief) delivers a father-daughter saga with a twist.
We meet Samuel at the beginning of the book – he is a truck driver and takes his daughter Loo everywhere with him. Loo loves her life with her father. When Sam realizes that she is too isolated, he moves back to where he lived with his wife (Loo’s mother who died when she was young). Sam takes up fishing for a living and puts Loo in school.
Loo experiences ridicule and physical punishment by her classmates. Her father is the reason – his mysterious history she knows nothing about. Sam has a violent temper and how he wields it in the town makes pariahs of them both.
The “Twelve Lives” correspond to twelve bullet holes that have scarred over on Sam’s body. Each one has a story and as the book progresses we are drawn into the random, violent and criminal life that Sam has led. In NPR’s interview with the author she said, “. …one of the connections I made was between Samuel Hawley and the myth of Hercules - actually, the structure of the myth of Hercules with his 12 labors. So, I'm interested in heroes that are flawed. And I wanted to translate those 12 labors into the 12 lives of Samuel Hawley and show how sometimes you have to do really bad things to accomplish your goals.”
Can a bad person be a good parent? Can a violent man atone for his past? Is Sam redeemed in the book? Can Loo learn a different path…how to live without her anger? These are provocative questions that are left for interpretation.
An interesting and unpredictable fiction – you cannot see around the corners.
We’ve discovered that author Fredrik Backman has a gift for making unlikeable people quite lovable. Remember the curmudgeon, Ove, and the obsessive/compulsive Britt-Marie? Both characters wore their way into our hearts despite their quirks. We were charmed by these characters and their stories.
In Beartown, however, Backman has deviated from (I could also say he has grown away from) his successful formula and given us a novel deep in sociological truths.
Beartown is not a charming story. Beartown is a Scandinavian community that eats, sleeps, and dreams the game of hockey. The wellbeing and future of the town rest entirely on the success or failure of the high school hockey team. The star player, Kevin, is revered, fawned over and pampered. He is the center of the universe around which the rest of the community orbits. Kevin however takes a potentially fatal step when he rapes the teenage daughter of the hockey coach. The resulting tsunami of conflict, division and anger catapults the reader deep into an exploration of loyalty, values, and family.
No question, Backman is a great developer of character. Equally compelling to me is his skilled development of community. In his first three novels, A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and Britt- Marie Was Here, community gathers around our protagonists, lifts them up and offers them friendship and love. In Beartown, community takes on a whole new depth of meaning – and some of it is pretty ugly.
No, Beartown is not a charming story. It is however, a deep and authentic story of how and who we love. It is a story of despair, desperation, and truth. In the midst of scandal, greed and violence, there is ultimately redemption in this story.
Backman has done it again in a whole new way.
Beartown comes out in hardback on April 25th.
In 1999, close to the Ojibwe reservation in northern North Dakota, two families, neighbors, one white, one Native American, have been friends for years: the Ravich's and the Iron's. The men married half-sisters. They help each other. But Landreaux Iron accidently shoots and kills Pete Ravich's five-year old son, Dusty, while hunting.
How does either family go on after such a catastrophe? How do they not implode under the weight of grief, guilt and rage? Those questions form the heart of the novel.
Landreaux and his wife recall their Ojibwe traditions, and in an impossible, perfect, fraught action, give their five-year old son, Larose, to the Ravich's to raise as their own -- a life for a life.
LaRose is the latest in a line of LaRose's, and a mysterious boy who has the gift of second sight and of seeing the dead, the same gifts as his antecedents. Erdrich weaves into the narrative a wholly convincing magic realism, an Ojibwe version.
She creates an integrated community made up of sisters on a high school volleyball team; a priest, an ex-Marine and survivor of the Beirut barracks bombing; brazen, elderly Ojibwe women in a nursing home, and Romeo, an addict and a damaged man whose desire for revenge brings the plot to its climax. But it is LaRose at the center of it all, a boy of resourcefulness and courage, who has a intuitive understanding of his role as the link between families: he is the one who is to be loved.
At the end, the dead gather with the living at a celebration, and LaRose listens to their song:
"We love you, Don't cry, Sorrow eats time, Be patient, Time eats sorrow."
We also hear the song, of course, invited into knowledge by Larose's talent, and invited into the peculiar power of some novels to also change us and make us better.
LaRose comes out in paperback April 11th!
I am not a fan of “coming of age” novels. I have already come of age and that road was rough enough for me. History of Wolves opens with a hauntingly beautiful description of Northern Minnesota, marred by the decrepit remains of a defunct commune. The last family on the commune, an eccentric and pseudo-functional couple, has a 15-year old daughter, Linda. She is angsty, an outcast at school with few friends. Linda is desperate to be out of her house as much as possible and is able to get a babysitting job with a mother, Patra, and 4 year old son who live across the small lake.
Fridlund subtly hints of a sexual awakening in Linda. She has a fascination for a student who, allegedly, has been molested by a teacher (although it turns out not to be true). She also develops a “crush” on Patra – and on one occasion sleeps closely next to her and kisses her.
Hmm. So far I was skeptical – reads like that coming of age genre. I was soon to be surprised. Linda’s meets Patra and her 4 year old son, Paul. They are on vacation across the lake. Patra hires Linda to babysit Paul and, later, the dominating father joins them at the lake. The novel takes a chilling twist, as we are drawn into Linda’s discovery of parents who neglect their child in an unimaginable way. Linda must confront her complicity – and guilt. She is now adrift from her own family – as well as her new “adopted” one – when Patra places the blame for the tragedy on her.
History of Wolves raises questions about wrenching decisions made in a religious context (to explain it in more detail would give the story away). Don’t expect a happy ending here. Fridlund leaves the reader with an ethical conundrum – and with Linda who, left on her own to move into adulthood, is irreparably damaged.
I assume I am like many book lovers in one way. The end of the year finds me casting a wistful glance back at the many books I intended to read. Lack of time and discipline, compounded by the overwhelming distractions of daily life, and the constant need to read "forward" -- got in the way of my intentions.
Last month's publication of Transit by Rachel Cusk served as a reminder of one of my novels-never-read in 2015, Outline. Outline and Transit, both from publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux are installments in an intended trilogy by the acclaimed Cusk. The first book in the series, Outline, was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2015 by the New York Times during a year graced by the publication of so many remarkable novels.
Both Outline and Transit are highly unconventional novels. The protagonist, a writing teacher and novelist, serves as our narrator and tour guide through a series of conversations with her students, traveling companions, fellow writers and friends, hairdresser, contractor, the list goes on. A gifted listener and observer who rarely interjects commentary or questions into these conversations, she is a sounding board and mirror for her companions' stories of loss, love, self-awareness, grief and growth. Often, the stories begin innocently as -- in one example -- a breathless explanation for why a friend has arrived late to a dinner. From such innocent beginnings, the thread of each nested story unravels and the conversations serve bit by bit to reveal a larger truth in the overarching outer story of our protagonist. The stories rarely end up where you might imagine they are headed and we are afforded tiny glimpses into the life of our narrator through these largely one-sided conversations.
Rachel Cusk's writing is restrained, elegant, smart and accessible. In a time of careless and chaotic misuse of words, her writing has yielded what one reviewer termed "lethally intelligent" novels. I highly recommend purchasing both books together as you will need to pick up the second immediately after finishing the first. You will recognize the novels by their inviting dust jacket design which unifies them gracefully as a series: a simple page of lined paper lifted at the corner to expose the vivid blue of the Aegean Sea (Outline is set in Athens) and a gilded song bird in flight on the cover of Transit.
Enjoy and happy reading!
Norwegian Wood is a novel I have revisited several times. It's become a tradition to read it every year of my high school career. Each year, the book changes with me. As I gain new insights, this nostalgic story finds new meaning. Originally published in 1987, Norwegian Wood sold 3 million copies across Japan within its first year. It went on to be translated into over 40 different languages. This was the novel that transformed Murakami from a struggling artist into a major commercial success.
The story revolves around Toru, a 19 year old student, and his relationships with the people he meets in his college life. Set in 1970’s Tokyo during the education reform movement, readers share the experience with Toru and other students as they fight for their right to an education. Toru falls in love with a young woman named Naoko, whom he has known since high school. She is stuck in the past but still manages to smile. Around the same time Toru meets Midori, a woman who is the polar opposite of Naoko.
The majority of characters in Murakami’s work are college students and other people in transitional periods in their lives. Murakami is fascinated with the magic of this stage of life, and with recalling his own memories of that time. His stories are fueled by his passion for music (especially jazz). While reading Norwegian Wood, you can feel the rhythm of Murakami’s words and the melody of the story. Beautifully constructed sentences with vivid adjectives will strike your curiosity. Murakami’s ruminations on death are profound, and describe it in such a way so that it does not destroy you, but rather makes it clear. He creates a world that is so easily accessible, even to those of us who know next to nothing about Japanese culture.
Murakami’s ability to authentically capture the feeling of adolescence in this melancholy rights of passage love story has led the book to be dubbed the Japanese Catcher In the Rye. If you are new to the magical and mysterious world of Murakami, I would highly recommend starting with Norwegian Wood.
I’ve been reading too many books about adultery lately.
I never thought one could read too many books about adultery- after all, what better a subject to consume the entirety of one’s waking hours- yet here I am. Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Gabriel Marquez, Fitzgerald - it seems a lot of dead dudes thought about cheating. Maybe a lot of alive dudes think about it too; I’m no clairvoyant. I’ve spent the past month reading divorce statistics in the United States, in other countries, on Mars. The whole thing’s got me thinking about what marriage is, this day and age, and what we as a society have come to hold sacred.
Sometimes I go outside to get sunlight and water my leaves. Eat a scoop of fertilizer. My friends are all like, “OMG look look look” and I’m like, “What hot guy? And do you have any thoughts about the evolution of marriage as a possibly outdated, merely economic-based institution?”
It has come to my attention that no one wants to have this discussion.
In the hopes of mending my social standing, last weekend I re-read my favorite Stephen King novel to put me in a more conversation-friendly mindset. Yeah, I realize the irony underlying this. Sometimes a girl just wants to switch from reading about adultery to death, you know? I was in the mood for either King or Twilight and come on, don't make me go down the Edward vs. Jacob road again. That was a dark time.
So. Different Seasons by the Master of Craft, Stephen King. I read this gem a few years ago during my pizza-face acne stage, and the novel almost blocked out all the nightmares I had of kids trying to eat my greasy red face. (Sometimes I dream of hordes of Abercrombie-sporting kids placing pepperonis on my cheeks while I’m tanning on a sunbathed beach, but that’s the fault of Albert Camus, not King. Thanks Camus.)
Different Seasons contains four different novellas: ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,’ ‘Apt Pupil,’ ‘The Body,’ and ‘The Breathing Method.’ Most human beings living in the US have heard of ‘Shawshank’ because of the film based off of it, and the book’s far better than that stupid movie but you knew that, you smart well-read person you.
Who cares about ‘Shawshank,’ though, when you have ‘Apt Pupil,’ which was also made into a movie I hate talking about. ‘Apt Pupil’ really is the only reason I’m writing this review. The other three novellas are stellar, typical King with some great character work to boot, but ‘Apt Pupil’ is something else.
A boy suspects his elderly immigrant neighbor of being a Nazi war criminal, and get this- the neighbor is a Nazi war criminal! It all goes awesomely twisted from there. Light reading to complement the optimistic daily news, you know?
As a deftly-crafted thriller ‘Apt Pupil’ can stand alone, but it’s so much more than a typical Tuesday night for King enthusiasts. The novella explores the manifestation of curiosity, the psychological effects of blackmail, the brain’s odd relation to control, and the origins of prejudice and hate; the story discusses where violence starts and raises the ubiquitous question: are certain people born evil, or is evil something that must be carefully crafted by the midnight recesses and playgrounds of our minds?
I haven’t decided which is worse for maintaining friendships, reading about adultery or boys obsessed with Nazis.
I’ll get back to you on that.
Political monsters go beyond accepted codes of decency again and again and feel no remorse. If they are not caught, unmasked, or stopped cold, they will continue. They believe their power gives them the right to do as they wish to the powerless for “the wolf is entitled to the lamb.”*
Some are able to disguise themselves. They escape justice by relocating and fading in, by adopting a new identity, by shifting themselves into a new landscape — Mengele in Brazil, Eichmann in Argentina, Amin in Saudi Arabia. They attempt to remove their atrocities from their actions as easily as a man hangs up a hat. Often, their charisma remains, a self-assurance that gives them a compelling presence.
In The Little Red Chairs O’Brien brings us Fidelma, an Irish woman unhappy in her marriage and feeling trapped by the isolation and stifling codes of her village. She falls for a newly arrived emigrant, a large, quiet, courtly, self-proclaimed healer and poet, white-bearded as a patriarch, and a man adept in his guise, Doctor Vlad, a character modeled after Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and a war criminal responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths.
Vlad is capable of tenderness and genuine concern. He knows how to listen. That he could be the “Butcher of the Balkans” is unimaginable. He persuades a suspicious priest and police officer that he is incapable of harm, that he is benign.
When his disguise fails him (upon being recognized by a casualty of his cruelty who is working a party for a caterer), Fidelma’s life also implodes. After a terrible assault and a public shaming, she goes into exile in London, penniless, damaged, adrift. A refugee organization assists her and there she meets survivors of Vlad’s atrocities and hears their stories of torture, mass murder and rape and how they are now trying to put their lives back together. These men and women work menial jobs, and form a population of the invisible and disposable, but their compassion, perseverance and memories give them an individual humanity.
In a dream Fidelma confronts Vlad. She charges him with his crimes. She asks, “Do you have bad dreams, nightmares?” He says, “No…I sleep well…I dream well…I dream of women.” He believes himself to be a full human being. He sees himself in heroic terms and also as the victim of lies and conspiracies, but Fidelma wants to know “Was your essential nature always evil … were you ever innocent?” She does not receive an answer.
She struggles into a new life, one that is scarred and fragile but promising of solace and work.
Vlad performed his awful labor with the help of tens of thousands of his countrymen and women who drove out and murdered their own neighbors. I wonder if tyrants do not call out the cruelty already crouching within their supporters, if they do not give power to their resentments and thus justify their vengeance, if they discern how to foster their malice and ready it to be unleashed when someone finally gives them permission.
You should read this book.
*All quotations are from The Little Red Chairs.
**In Sarajevo in April of 2012, the 20th year since the siege of the city by Bosnian Serb forces had begun, “11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows” along the main street, “one for every Sarajevan killed” during its almost 4 year length; “643 small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and heavy artillery.”
549 Wellington Square Exton, PA
During the early 1990s I worked in Chelsea, a few blocks north of Union Square. Taking walks during the day helped me manage my fatigue; my day began and ended with a two hour commute to the western suburbs of Philadelphia. Union Square Greenmarket was bustling several days a week, and a great place to walk during lunch and treat myself to something to be enjoyed at home. It was one of the first farmer’s markets of its kind in the city, and the first I had ever encountered. I was amazed by the vast variety of produce available at the market, all of it grown within a few hours of the city, and I was intrigued when I learned of nearby Union Square Cafe, the then ten year old restaurant that was to New York City what Chez Panisse was to San Francisco, the originator of the farm-to-table concept.
This past summer, an intriguing book rested comfortably on the NYT Bestsellers list for months. The cover features scrawled lettering and a broken wine glass, just a splash of red wine remaining at its base. The book is the debut novel of former Union Square Cafe backwaiter, Stephanie Danler and the title is Sweetbitter. I’m not sure how I missed the connection to Union Square Cafe, otherwise I would have read it immediately. This book is entertaining and relatable — for me — on so many levels. My connection to Union Square, my former life in college as a waitress, albeit never at restaurants as fine as Union Square, and of course, my appreciation for fine food and food memoirs. The fact that Stephanie Danler is such a gifted writer is the proverbial icing on the cake, or should I say the cranberry syrup and the whipped creme fraiche on the pumpkin cheesecake! The pages practically turned themselves as a I read Sweetbitter, This is a mesmerizing debut from a truly gifted writer.
Sweetbitter is a memoir, yet it is also a novel. (With a dash of kitchen confidential expose thrown in for good measure.) The lives of the staff at the restaurant begin when the restaurant closes. They are young, they are intelligent, beautiful and all living in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. They work very hard to create memorable evenings for those lucky enough to finagle a table at the restaurant and then they play very, very hard, frequently staying out at bars and clubs until the first rays of sun meander through the skyscrapers to the Manhattanites below.
The main character, Tess, has arrived in New York City without a plan. A midwesterner without a clue, she drives straight over the George Washington Bridge in June of 2006 without realizing she needs money for the toll. From that moment on, the New York lessons hit her in waves, nearly extinguishing her enthusiasm for her new life. She wings her interview at the restaurant, arriving sweaty and disheveled, and miraculously is given a two week provisional position as a back waiter (read busboy). An incredibly lucky break, by any standards. The wait staff is less than welcoming, this is the server equivalent of hazing, yet she survives and is rewarded with a permanent position, a locker, and her “stripes”, the trademark striped oxford shirts worn by the staff.
I’ll stop a moment here to mention — again — that Stephanie Danler is an incredibly talented writer. That’s where the novel part of this debut figures into the picture. The plot incorporates the lessons she learns from senior staff about everything from identifying the origins of an oyster by taste, the development of her palate, her burgeoning knowledge of wine…wine regions, varietals, terroir, how to pronounce, taste, sell and properly present and uncork a bottle at a table, and, the four tastes accessible to us through those funny sand papery bumps on our tongues — sweet, bitter, salt, sour. The plot deftly develops a map of the hierarchy of wait staff and the relationships within and outside of the restaurant; in short the back stories that make her colleagues interesting to her and to us, as readers. Tess’s relationship with an older server/mentor and the handsome, bad boy bartender does occupy a significant portion of the novel’s focus, too much at times, but the restaurant is the epicentre of her life, and as such, so are her fellow employees.
There is no lack of restaurant drama here. I found myself having mild heart palpitations on a night when one of the servers — her mentor — is shaken by a guest and loses it, retreating to the wine cellar and leaving her tables in limbo. The restaurant is immaculate by New York standards but as filthy as you would imagine a kitchen that serves three seatings seven days a week would become. Her descriptions of fruit fly infestations and the evening the health inspector shows up are riveting.
Stephanie Danler’s talent is on full display with her often sensual sometimes shockingly raw descriptions of all of these: food, excessive drinking/drugging, sex, the life lessons learned by a young twenty something living in New York City for the first time.
By the time the novel comes to a close, Tess has been treated less than fairly. I fumed as I read the last pages of the novel detailing her setup and eventual demise, yet she remained grateful for the experience, stoic and the opposite of bitter. I am thrilled that she was able to transform her experience into this remarkable and highly acclaimed debut — there is a large plate of karma being served up here, to be sure!
The venerable Union Square Cafe closed about two years ago, citing rent increases. It is scheduled to reopen sometime this fall at a new location, not far from the greenmarket. I would give anything to be one of the those fruit flies on the wall, the evening Stephanie Danler saunters into the restaurant and is seated — hopefully — at the best table in the house. She deserves it!
I have fickle and impatient taste in books. Not necessarily in an intellectual, deep thinking way, but if a book does not entertain me from page one, I’m out; so when I started to read “The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, I was thrilled when it drew me in right away. “The Nest” is a little bit “The Family Stone,” “This Is Where I Leave You,” and “Love Actually” to name a few of my favorite books and movies.
At the start of the book, a dramatic event occurs because of the poor judgement of one member of the Plumb family. Of course it is the sibling who is always botching things up and always the shyster. Because of his actions, the anticipated family inheritance is compromised…well, more like gone. The Nest is what the adult children have fondly named their inheritance, and they reverently refer to it frequently, like it is another functioning member of the family. All of the siblings are counting on this money, and the knowledge of the cash in their futures has dictated many important decisions in their separate lives. They have been waiting a long time for the money. As per their deceased father’s will, they do not receive the inheritance until the youngest in the family turns forty. Because of the anticipation of the Nest, each member of this family was on a trajectory to failure.
About a maladjusted family with many backstories thrown in, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney writes with great humor, depth, and character development. The writing is comical but not shallow. The author writes about the matriarch of the family, “For years, the Plumbs had told one another that their mother was just a mean drunk. If she would just stop drinking! They’d say, She’ll be fine. They eagerly awaited her transformation only to discover that they already knew her true nature: She was just a little mean.” So this is a glimpse of the head of this family, and the story unfolds along with everyone’s share of drama, dysfunction, and angst.
Pick up this great read. It will make you feel good about your own flawed and quirky families, and it will make you happy that you will stay grounded because you do not have a huge family inheritance in your future…well, maybe not!
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop