Tag Archives: friends

Pieces of April

Between Here and April: A Novel by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Algonquin Books; $13.95; 304 pages)

Deborah Copaken Kogan presents a heartrending story in her page-turning novel, Between Here and April.

Elizabeth Burns is determined to research and share the story of the disappearance of her childhood friend, April.   Following multiple blackout episodes, Elizabeth begins to recall the details of her friend and the rumors that followed her absence decades before.   However, as Elizabeth begins to question April’s family members and neighbors, the heart breaking trauma and the revelation of the outcome causes Elizabeth to reflect on her own life and past and reexamine her priorities.

The riveting storyline overlaps Elizabeth’s journey with the details of April’s disappearance and brings the characters to life, past and present.   The main character, Elizabeth, is challenged with balancing career and family with the probable consequences for indulging in reckless desires.   She must decide what portions of her life are worth mending to protect her own priorities.

She (Elizabeth’s daughter) slipped her mittened hand in mine and squeezed it tight, a gesture whose emotional pull is never diminished.   This is all there is, I thought to myself, self-consciously.   This is why we live.

Kogan examines the challenges of motherhood and how far some women will go to protect their children and preserve their cherished life and memories.   Yet, this is only one of the many overlapping controversial topics presented by Kogan throughout the novel, a few too many for my taste.   And although the story also presents some implausible circumstances (such as coming across actual dialogue of April’s mother presented to Elizabeth by a psychologist’s widow), Kogan keeps the reader intrigued through complex, interesting characters and clear, believable dialogue.

Recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “The perfect book club book.”   The Washington Post Book World

Deborah Copaken Kogan also wrote Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Between Here and April: A Novel by Deborah Copaken Kogan.

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Carry On

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press; $27.99; 432 pages)

A reader often selects a book because they like the author, heard it was good, or finds the subject interesting, only to meander through the pages discovering that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped for.   Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book which they’ve had the pleasure to read.   Then, without warning, comes that “next” book – the one they whip through so fact they are sad when it comes to an end.   For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.

Oates’ husband, Ray Smith, dies unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia.   There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together.   They met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death.   An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue, as Ray’s untimely passing left many loose ends in their lives.   More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her continual references to literature and their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must elect to live.

Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/antidepressants.   She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseam, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more.   The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”

What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith.   It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings for her husband.   Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction.   Upon his death, she deliberated excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel Black Mass, in which he consternates over his Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer.

If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.   It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction.   The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written non-fiction tales of death; Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father.   It is a lesson to all readers not to commingle the work with the writer.

There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters though the memoir, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc.   The book slows down a bit, before it recovers.

After someone passes, the living understandably focus on those that remain, and, inevitably, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing.   However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her husband, which she does here in impeccable fashion.

One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that because she is so prolific, a reader can hardly keep track of her output.   Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her.

Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one.   It is simply too good to miss.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, and we interpret it as being the equivalent of a highly recommended rating.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Connection

What the Dog Saw and other adventures by Malcolm Gladwell (Back Bay Books; $16.99; 410 pages)

Learning is so much fun when Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) is the instructor.   Gladwell’s calm but engaging style is the common thread in this anthology composed of nineteen essays previously published in the New Yorker magazine.   There is just enough cohesion among the essays to  make for smooth transitions.   Yes, Gladwell cites some facts and studies used by other authors; however, his use of the material takes on a new look when seen through his question and answer format.

This reviewer was fascinated by the piece titled, “The Ketchup Conundrum.”   The reader is presented with the statements, “Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties.   Why has ketchup stayed the same?”   This is a condiment that dominates most others, whether it’s in a booth at a burger joint or on a family’s kitchen table.   One brand in particular rises above the rest in taste tests, and that’s Heinz.   Gladwell provides a charming history of ketchup along with the various challenges that have been made to the Heinz dominance of the field.   After reading the essay, I felt compelled to buy a bottle of Heinz for my own taste test.   Mind you, our household is rarely the scene of actual cooking so I had to be creative in using my purchase.   Happily, the flavor of Heinz blends perfectly with cottage cheese resulting in a pseudo-macaroni and cheese flavor without the carbs.

The preceding example is indicative of the connections that can be made to the everyday life of the reader.   This anthology is by no means a heavy-duty literary work; rather, it prompts conversations with family and friends.   Isn’t that what knowledge does?

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her.

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Little Puppy Says Woof!

Little Puppy Says Woof! by Phoebe Dunn (Random House Books for Young Readers, $8.99, 14 pages)

As a cat, I’m not the biggest fan of dogs, but even I know that puppies are adorable!   Toddlers will love this story of Charlie the Cocker Spaniel puppy who is adopted by a boy named Tim.   We see that Charlie is at first lonely for his brother and sister puppies, but eventually he learns to sleep with a plush stuffed toy dog “brother”.   Tim’s a good kid who knows enough to take Charlie to the vet right away for a check-up.

Charlie learns to chase a ball, although he’s not perfect.   He does like to chew on house plants and run in piles of freshly raked leaves.   But he’s a natural swimmer, so he becomes the furry companion to Tim and his grandpa when they go out on the lake in a rowboat.   Charlie’s such a good dog that Tim knows that he and Charlie will be the best of friends forever.

Oh, I forgot to mention that this book comes with a button that can be pressed whenever you want to hear Charlie’s bark.   It’s a great feature that may not be appreciated by other cats.

This review was written by Munchy Arellano.   Yes, he’s a cat.   (Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.)

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From The Heart

Mother-Daughter Duet: Getting to the Relationship You Want with Your Adult Daughter by Cheri Fuller & Ali Plum

Cheri Fuller and Ali Plum are ideally suited to offer advice about the always-complex mother-daughter relationship.   Each of these women has experienced her own challenges in life, among them alcoholism and marital discord.   As mother (Cheri) and daughter (Ali), they provide the voices for the book’s chapters that address key events in a mother-daughter relationship such as leaving home, weddings and the birth of grandchildren.   Their voices are first heard as solos and then as a duet.   The reader is advised on what works and what does not when specific issues are confronted.

Cheri and Ali have sought assistance and advice from professional counselors and trusted friends when dealing with their own issues.   As would be expected with a Multnomah publication, the book is written with a Christian perspective; hence the scripture citations and references to prayer.   Cheri is a well-known author, columnist and speaker on women’s issues.   Ali is a songwriter and makes a strong debut in this book as a writer.

The take-away from Mother-Daughter Duet is that life holds the promise of closeness with those we care for; however, it requires mindfulness and faith to experience these rewards.   Mindfulness and faith are not accomplished once and for all time, rather, they must be practiced each and every day.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by Waterbrook Multnomah, a division of Random House. 

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