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Last Enchantments (nook book)

The Last Enchantments: A Novel by Charles Finch (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 336 pages)

Charles Finch has created a fictional memoir centered on a young man’s year in England studying at Oxford University. The narrator’s name is unknown as he prepares to depart New York and his long time live in girlfriend, Alison. We enter his life as he finishes packing while disentangling himself from Alison. We join him on his ride to the airport and flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Is disillusionment with the political scene all that is spurring him back to academia? Perhaps distancing himself from a failed political campaign and Alison is just what he needs.

There are clues to the era including references to working the campaign trail for John Kerry that provide the reader with a timeframe. Our narrator, Will, is a graduate student in the Oxford English department. After Finch establishes Will as his main character, he indulges himself with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the total Oxford experience, about which he possesses firsthand knowledge.

To his credit, Finch has the wonderful ability to create fresh phrases and hold the reader’s attention with well-described conflicting human emotions. Will and his fellow graduate students, both male and female, are influenced deeply by these emotions. There is a delicate balance among dialogue, inner musings and narrative. Alas, no quotes may be provided, as the review copy of the book sent by the publisher is an Advance Reader’s Edition.

This reviewer was surprised at the sheer volume of beer drinking, punting on the river and hooking up that takes place during Will’s year of living unencumbered. The pompous image this American has of students at Oxford was quickly erased! What’s striking is the ambiguity with which the characters view their relationships. Perhaps the delay of making adult commitments woven throughout The Last Enchantments is the norm for a certain group of folks these days.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Unforgiven

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway, $14.00, 336 pages)

“Grant had never forgiven her for stuff that happened twenty-six years ago…”

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C., Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry him; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their twin toddlers.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.   Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who’s home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is popular fiction wrapped in the guises of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with  Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her married, pregnant daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in stories such as this one.   After another set of implausible events (the second of two sets, if you’re counting), Annabelle has moved to New York City to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will either seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a stretch.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is sometimes plodding by comparison and the time shifts are awkward and distracting.   There may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff.

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This is the third of three reviews of The Stuff That Never Happened posted on this site.   The novel was well recommended by Kelly Monson, and highly recommended by Kimberly Caldwell.

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Talk Talk

A Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew (Algonquin)

1.   What was your inspiration for writing Missing Lucile?

My father’s mother, Lucile Kroger Berne, died when he was a little boy and he never got over it.   His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact.   As a child I always wished I could find his mother for him, the way children always wish they could give their parents things they feel their parents are missing.   In my case, the feeling persisted into adulthood, especially when my father got very sick and he began to focus almost obsessively on the mother he’d never known.

2.   You’ve said that you found a few things that once belonged to your grandmother that sparked your research into her life.   What were they?

A few years ago I discoverd an old fruitcake tin of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother that I’d collected from my grandmother’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve.   A commemorative medal, a college pin, a charm bracelet, two packets of postcards from World War I, an old exercise book of poems she had copied out, an annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith.   Nothing that, at first glance, seemed particularly revealing.   But what caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives.   When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919.   That packet was what really got me going, especially after I’d had the photographs printed and sent one to my father of his mother in uniform, a rifle propped against a wall behind her.

3.   Your book illuminates the life of Lucile Kroger during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the rich culture of that time.   How much research did you do into that time period to write this book?

A lot – much of it haphazard.   To my shame, I never took a history course in college, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to conduct historical research.   The archivists at the Wellesley College library can tell you just what a novice I was when I first appeared at their door, asking if they could direct me to any information about my grandmother.   But I was lucky in having a research assistant for a semester when I was teaching at Harvard, who went weekly to Widener Library and returned with armloads of books about France after World War I.   And I was lucky in having a great grandfather, B. H. Kroger, who was famous enough to have had a book written partly about him, with lots of information about his first grocery stores and his life in Cincinnati at the turn of the century.   And I was very lucky to be living close to Wellesley College, where I haunted the library for a couple of years and slowly blundered my way into information about Lucile, and college life for women in the early 1900s, and then the experiences of Wellesley relief workers during and after the first World War.

I paged through photo albums and scrapbooks, read college newpapers, alumnae bulletins, letters, yearbooks, and gradually found a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.

4.   In the book you describe your father’s sadness and his sense of loss, which permeated the family over decades.   What was it like to, in essence, give him his life back?

I didn’t give him his life back – he was already in his eighties when I began researching his mother’s life and only too painfully aware of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had.   What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence, that she had been a  person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own loses and chances, her own fierce desires.

5.   How much of the book is fact versus what you imagine Lucile to be like?   How did you weave those two pieces together?

I tried to be factual as much as possible but there were periods of Lucile’s life where I had very few “facts” about her to go on.   For instance, all I had to inform me about her high school years were some photographs and her annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith in which she’s recorded the names and addresses of two different boarding schools in Washington, DC, and the dates she supposedly attended them – though I could never ascertain whether she was ever a student at either school.  

Often all I had that was truly factual about her life was what I could glean from the time period and wherever it was that she was living and what I knew, in general, about her family.   So there’s quite a bit of speculation in the book.   I don’t try to imagine Lucile so much as theorize about her, which I suppose sometimes amounts to the same thing.

To be continued…

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A Day in the Life

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)

“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy.   He’d hardly known her…  I wished I could give his mother back to him.”

Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet.   Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932.   Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.

Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars.   Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life.   As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…”   That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here.   She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.

Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile.   She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths.   For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy.   This is what happens in real life.

Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life.   And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such…  “Every life has its blank squares.”   (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)

Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.”   She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to.   There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man.   Perhaps.

Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork:  “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable.   Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…”   But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.

The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together).   The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect.   The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.

“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record…  every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”

Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait.   His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing.   What a tremendous gift!

Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Time Between

Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel (Harper; $24.99; 320 pages)

“It was so easy, I understood now, to take a wrong turn…”

“All the days have turned to years…”   Chris Hillman (“Time Between,” The Byrds)

This is a novel that finishes well.   This being said, the first half of the novel is a muddy bog.   I often felt as if I was reading the diary of an obsessive person who notices every detail but has no idea as to what meaning to attach to the aggregation.   Here is a sampling:

Paul stopped walking and I almost bumped into him.   I could see the pink of his skin through the translucent white of his T-shirt, the short hairs on the back of his neck.   “Look,” he said, pointing at the water.   By his foot, a blue crab skittered across the sand, then slipped underneath a rock.   …He offered me his hand and I took it, but only until I’d stepped over a wide stretch of coral.   We walked for an hour.   Paul spoke only to point out a creature or plant, and I spoke only to acknowledge him.   The flats surrounded our stilt home on three sides, and I’d never before walked to their far edges.

This is not quite scintillating reading, and there are 150 or so pages like this before the plotline begins to come together.   This is the story of a Miami couple and the events that happen to them and their daughter between the years of 1969 and 1993.   It seems to take forever to get to the 90s.

The future married couple at the center of this tale initially meet as young college students playing in a community of homes built on pilings in the waters of Biscayne Bay, Florida.   The collection of homes is known as Stiltsville.   It’s a community that will not last, one of the many things revealed to the reader before he/she actually needs to know it.   Susanna Daniel has the frustrating habit of setting a scene, the events involving the main characters, in current time before skipping forward to tell you what will happen later.   For example, her female protagonist’s first impressions of Miami are that, “…the city (Miami) seemed large to me…  though it would double in breadth and height and population during the time I lived there.”

This needless plot device is used far too many times.   In one odd instance, the lead character is telling us about today before she jumps to “nearly a year later.”   Contra, another time we suddenly shift from today to the events of the preceding day.   Later on, we’re reading about what’s happening to the family one evening before we’re abruptly shifted back to the supposedly related events that occurred eight months earlier.   All of this is far too clever to be interesting.

There’s also the problem of stilted language in Stiltsville.   Early on our female lead tells us that, “…after meeting Dennis, I saw in my own future bright, unknowable, possibilities.   I’m a bit ashamed to have been a person without much agency in life…”   Agency?   What reader knows a person who would use that word today…  and in Miami?   Her future husband Dennis, by the way, works for a successful law firm in Miami but seems to know little about law.   In one scene, he worries that he’ll be arrested by the Coast Guard (and quite possibly disbarred) for buying a boat from a person who may not have had clear title to it.   Any first year law student would tell him not to worry, but then this is fiction.

Stiltsville also includes some paths that lead nowhere.   At one point Daniel includes a thinly disguised take-off on the Rodney King case, except that it’s set in Miami rather than Los Angeles.   The reader is meant to get somewhat worked up about riots and the prospect of better communities being invaded before this side-story disappears.   It has nothing to do with the main story, so why was it included?

In the latter part of the novel, Daniel does create some quotable statements such as, “The cement of a marriage never dries.”   She also displays her cleverness in dropping a near tragedy into our laps before sidestepping it.   And, finally, there’s the point at which someone is affected by a devastating illness.   If Daniel had begun at this point she might have crafted a tight, compelling and fascinating debut.   Instead, Stiltsville exposes us to a writer of some potential who failed to put much of it down on the written page this time around.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Win a Second Chance!

“The Season of Second Chances was a wonderful novel that I enjoyed reading.   I enjoyed it so much that I ripped through the book reading it late into the night…”   Laura Gerold, Laura’s Reviews

“As in an old house, you will encounter all manner of surprises on Joy’s journey and, I promise, they will keep you reading far too late in the evening to be sensible…”   Katherine Lanpher, author of Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Move

Just yesterday, we posted a review of The Season of Second Chances: A Novel by Diane Meier.   Now, thanks to Interpersonal Frequency LLC, we have a copy of Second Chances to give away!   In case you haven’t yet read the review we posted, here is the official synopsis of this novel:

Joy Harkness had built a career and a safe life in New York City.   When offered a position at Amherst College, she impulsively leaves the city.   A tumbledown Victorian house proves an unlikely choice; nevertheless, it becomes the home that changes Joy forever.   As the restoration begins to take shape, so does her outlook on life.   Amid the half-wanted attention of the campus’ single, middle-aged men and the legitimate dramas of her community, Joy learns that second chances are waiting to be discovered within us all.

This book has a retail value of $25.00.   In order to enter this giveaway, all you need to do is post a comment here – with your name and an e-mail address – or send an e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, and speaking of second chances, tell us where you live now and where you would live if money was no object.  

Munchy the cat will serve as the contest administrator and will pick a winner.   You must live in the continental United States to enter this contest, and if your name is selected by Munchy, you must supply a residential mailing address.   The winner’s book will not be mailed to a P.O. box or to a business-related address.

You have until midnight PST on Sunday, October 3, 2010 to submit your entry or entries.   This is it for the contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!   

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Upside Down

The Stuff That Never Happened by Maddie Dawson (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C, Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry Grant; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their toddler twins.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.  Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who is home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is chick lit (popular fiction) disguised in the trappings of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly has died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her  pregnant, married daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in novels such as this one.   After another set of implausible events, Annabelle has moved to the city to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a status she has not earned.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is occasionally plodding by comparison and the time shifts are distracting.   There also may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff. 

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Stuff That Never Happened was released on August 3, 2010.

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