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Remember this…

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The Inseparables: A Novel by Stuart Nadler (Little, Brown, $27.00, 339 pages)

This is a family novel that’s populated by several unique and interesting characters.

There’s Henrietta, a cross between Erica Jong and J.D. Salinger. Decades ago she wrote a then-scandalous novel, The Inseparables, which brought her instant notoriety. She’s sought to avoid the spotlight since then. However, after the sudden and unexpected death of her chef husband Harold – a man who ran his restaurant of meals cooked with butter, more butter and even more butter into the ground, she approves a re-release of the book as she desperately needs money.

Oona is Henrietta’s orthopedist doctor daughter, who’s separated from her husband and who unwisely decides to have an affair with her former marriage counselor.

Spencer, Oona’s soon to be ex-husband, is a lawyer who quit his job with a major firm after one year. He desired instead to be a house husband, taking care of his daughter and smoking marijuana. Smoking pot is basically the one thing that Spencer excels at.

Lydia, the teenage daughter of Oona and Spencer, is an extremely bright student who decides to leave her public high school for a private prep school, where she will manage to have herself suspended. That suspension causes Lydia to consider a self-expulsion from the institution.

All of these individuals have led less than perfect lives, but they’re all striving to find contentment even if it kills them. They will find that happiness is not a result of having a best seller or owning a restaurant or living in a fancy city high-rise. It’s about the simple things – the free things in life such as the time a grandmother and granddaughter spend together:

They had been together most of the morning… Henrietta had not done this enough. Been in a restaurant with just her granddaughter. Traveled on a train with her. In the beginning it was the kind of thing she had imagined would happen more. Decent grandmotherhood, she had always suspected, depended on being able to do this well – to dote, to dispense wisdom, to spoil an unruly precocious young person with gifts and irreverent humor… Had she written down her goals for being a grandmother, this kind of thing would have been part of her hopes.

This is also a story about what it means to be an American in a time of rapid change. A time when a failing fancy European restaurant is downtown one day, replaced by a thriving taqueria the next. But these are just businesses, just buildings – structures that can be renovated or rebuilt or destroyed. People go on, families survive; the earth somehow thrives and surrounds us with beauty and hope.

inseparables

Before she gets up to go, she turned to see it again. The flat earth. The hills. All the good acres and the wind in the trees.

Remember this.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This novel was released on July 16, 2016.

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I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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