Tag Archives: mother and son

The Book Of My Life

our-short-history

Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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Child Is Father to the Man

Some Assembly Required (nook book)

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Baby by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott (Riverhead Books, $26.95, 288 pages)

I’m a huge fan of Anne Lamott. Having said that, it’s nevertheless hard to fathom who the audience is supposed to be for her most recent memoir, Some Assembly Required. This is the follow-up to Operating Instructions, in which Lamott wrote about the sometimes tense, oftentimes close relationship with her aspiring artist son, Sam. In Assembly, she writes about her first year as a grandmother (“Nana”) to baby Jax, balancing her love for a new male child with the demands of her son’s new life and the often conflicting desires of her daughter-in-law – a young woman who has very strong, opinionated ideas about the best way to raise a child.

The first Scripture reading today was Luke 15, the Prodigal Son. Of course. It’s the only real story – coming back to God, who welcomes us with heartbroken joy, no matter what, every time. I do not get this.

Ask and allow: ask God and allow Grace in.

What makes this memoir odd and often troublesome is that Lamott writes about her strong Christian beliefs (and about such things as the Four Immutable Laws of the Spirit) but frequently does so in language that would cause devoted church goers to blanch. For example, there’s the point at which she thinks about taking her son aside to say “something spiritual like ‘Shape the f–k up!'”. The latter type of language is going to draw the interest of some young, alienated college students – possibly a new audience for the writer, but they may be alienated by the countless references to God in the traditional religious sense.

And then things get even worse, as the memoir detours in another direction. Notwithstanding her Christianity, Lamott writes about traveling to India in a seemingly sideways search to find the meaning of life:

We were on the Ganges at five in the morning, in a riverboat in the fog. One image that had called me to India for years, besides the Taj Mahal, was a dawn visit to the Ganges on a riverboat, for the sunrise.

How does all of this come together in a manner that makes some sense? Well, it doesn’t. Reading Assembly is like reading the diary or journal notes of someone whose life heads in all directions at once, without meaning or apparent purpose. If Anne Lamott does not seem to know how to tie the loose ends of her life together, then – trust me – the reader is certainly unable to do so.

Some Assembly Required reads like an overly-rough draft of a memoir that screamed out for a very talented editor – a figure that apparently failed to appear.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Room: A Novel

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (Little,Brown; $24.99; 336 pages)

The Soul selects her own Society – Then – shuts the door.

Jack could be assumed to be a typical 5-year-old boy being homeschooled by his mother and engaging in similar activities as his peers (watching TV, reading, art).   However, Jack’s entire existence revolves around the life created by his abducted mother in an 11 X 11 room created for the sole purpose of keeping their existence a secret.

Told from Jack’s point of view, the story unfolds portraying realistic outcomes that create the illusion of a non-fiction novel.   You will root for Jack and his ‘Ma’ to escape the confines of their prison-like life with despicable “Old Nick” and enter the real world (outer space) for a chance to live a “normal” life.

Before I didn’t even know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it.   When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.

You will be enchanted by the endearing dedication provided by Jack’s mother as she recalls the details of her own childhood in order to create an atmosphere where Jack can survive and strive within the limits of Room.   This is a wonderful life-affirming portrayal of the strength of a mother’s love for her son.   It is a force which can survive under even the worst of circumstances.

Recommended.

This review was written by Kelly Monson.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.   Room, the seventh novel from Donoghue, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2010.

“Potent, darkly beautiful, and revelatory.”   Michael Cunningham

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Everybody’s Got Something to Hide*

*except for me and my monkey

Kasey to the Rescue: The Remarkable Story of a Monkey and a Miracle by Ellen Rogers (Hyperion; $23.99; 288 pages)

“Walk through one door at a time, I told myself, then look for a key to the next.   That was my strategy, and I was sticking to it.”

If you’re looking for a heartwarming present for someone this Christmas, this book may be it.   I had a copy of Kasey to the Rescue in my stash of books at the office, picked it up to scan during the lunch hour, and found it hard to close.  

Ellen Rogers’ 22-year-old son Ned was a student at the University of Arizona when he had a horrible auto accident that left him close to death.   The opening scene describing how Ellen got from Concord, Massachusetts to Tucson overnight is worth the price of admission as something amazing happened to speed her journey.   Her son survived the crash but as a quadriplegic with a brain injury.

“Pride.   Courage.   Hope.   They were all there in those three little words.”

Ned had always been extremely athletic and daring – despite a lack of natural skills – so his life came to a grim halt after the tragic event.   Inaction and depression crept in until the gift of an amazingly smart and social female Capuchin monkey gave him back his spirit, his mobility and his hope of persevering.   Kasey the monkey had been ever so patiently trained by foster parents and by the Monkey College maintained by Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.   (As with a human college, it takes two to four years to matriculate at Monkey College.)

Rogers’ telling of this tough, but inspirational, tale is as humorous as it is gripping and touching.   If this were an advertisement for a Disney film, you would read, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.”   This story is not a Disney film…  It’s real life.   You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

Well recommended.

“This gem of a book will capture the hearts of readers everywhere.”   Doris Kearns Goodwin

“A book to change your life.”   David Doss, Making Rounds with Oscar

“The story told in this book is one of hope, perserverance, laughter, and most importantly, family.”   Megan Talbert, Executive Director, Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled, Inc.

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

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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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White Room

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier (Henry Holt & Co.; $25.00; 304 pages)

“…my house, my home, had become something deep and comforting to me, far beyond what I’d ever expected to find or feel in an unprofessional world, or a world outside of ideas, of letters and literature.”

“…most men tend to live one-dimensional lives…”

Have you ever watched one of those home improvement shows on a channel like HGTV where you patiently wait through the whole show for the big reveal at the end – and then the end is a disappointment?   That’s kind of the way I felt about reading this book, which I wanted to like more than I did.   There was just less here than I expected to find.

This is basically the story of a romance between an academic homeowner, Joy Harkness, and a handyman-carpenter by the name of Ted Hennessey.   Joy leaves the politics of Columbia University to teach in an innovative new program at Amherst College in Massachusetts.   She has plenty of money so she buys her first real home, which is a run-down Victorian.   Of course, it needs to be run-down in order for Teddy to enter the picture.

It was the character of Teddy Hennessey that just did not add up for me and made the read slower than it should have been.   When we first encounter Teddy, he’s the handyman who listens to The Who cassettes all day on his boom box.   That’s when he’s not reciting the poetry of Yeats, from memory no less.   Now, really, what are the chances of hiring a handyman like that?   Well, virtually none in the real world.   Highly improbable to say the least.

“I’ll always be her child!” he snarled.

Oh, but then we think that maybe Teddy’s a closet intellectual who is just dying for the chance to go to college, something that Joy can help him with, right?   No, it turns out that Teddy is afraid of going to school because then he’d have to leave his sainted mother who has him wrapped around her finger like a 9-year-old.   So we’re left with a man-child who is simply not likeable (at least I can’t think of any male I know who would feel any sympathy for him).   Why the once-married, yet independent, Joy is attracted to the wuss that is Teddy is a sheer mystery.

Since the romance between Teddy and Joy appears to be doomed – he, by the way, calls her “man” – Joy develops an attraction to her abode.   This is merely a comforting, if hardly an earth shattering, premise on which to build a novel…

“I turned and noticed, as I climbed up the steps to the porch, that my house looked warm and welcoming.   The rooms were lit, glowing from within; the colors they reflected were soft and inviting.   There was life in this house, and I was part of it.”

There was also a lot of crying in this book.   “Tears ran down my face and puddle around my nose before soaking the pillow.   I didn’t know why I was crying…”   “I’ve cried more this year than in the past twenty combined.”   “(I) cried until I didn’t think there could possibly be any liquid left in my body.”   I’m not sure why the otherwise solid – and growingly feminist – protagonist needs to experience such intense crying jags, another confusing factor.

One more confusing thing concerns a major scene in the book.   Joy’s married-but-separated friend Donna is savagely attacked by her former husband.   Donna’s ex uses a golf club to beat her nearly to death; pieces of her scalp are found on the club by the police.   Donna apparently has several broken bones in her face and is in critical condition.   She is rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery and facial reconstruction.   A number of characters in this story act commendably, taking care of Donna’s children during the time that she’s away.   Eventually, Donna returns home on Valentine’s Day and the very thing the reader wants to know goes hauntingly unanswered – what does her face look like?   (It’s as if the character departs as a human but returns as a ghost.)

On the plus side, there’s some nice humor:  “I went into the dressing room and emerged from the curtain in outfit after outfit, like a puppet in a Punch and Judy show.”   But as for the ending of this story, it just seemed to me to run out of steam rather than conclude in a definitive (and logical) way.

Some will be attracted to this book because of its promise of a type of late-in-life feminism, or the notion that someone can, in a sense, partner with one’s surroundings.   Both are promising and positive notions but they did not eliminate a sense of hollowness.   Still Diane Meier has a nice, entertaining writing style; she’s a smoother version of Anna Quindlen.

“I had no story, or, at least, none that I could see.   But my vantage point was, perhaps, too close to the shore to see that I had, at last, begun to swim toward my own life.”

For the right reader, there may be lessons here that will assist in commencing a journey of self-examination and discovery; for that it is never, ever, too late.

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

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What Went Wrong with Tomorrow?

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Holt Paperbacks; $15.00; 250 pages)

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.”

This is an interesting and slyly engaging novel built around the theme that people never quite get what they want  out of life.   The story tells the tale of Frank Allcroft, a TV news anchorman working in his home town of Birmingham, England.   Frank appears to have everything possible in life – a great and glamorous job (one that makes people want to buy him his drinks), a beautiful and intelligent wife, and a bright, inquisitive and strangely optimistic daughter.   But things are unraveling at the seams.   His idol Phil, his predecessor in the anchor chair has died under mysterious circumstances; his late architect father’s buildings are being torn down; and his mother wants to be left alone to die in an assisted-living facility.

It seems that Frank will only be able to shake his malaise if he manages to figure out the details of Phil’s death.   Was it an accident, a suicide or something else?   Phil was always a positive extrovert but in the weeks before his death he was tearful and gloomy, drinking too much and telling his co-workers how much he loved them.   Something just doesn’t add up.

Frank likely saw Phil as a second father, one whose death brings back all of his memories of his father’s passing only a month after a professional setback.   Frank’s now seeing that nothing in life lasts, and the promise of a better future appears to be quickly diminishing in line with his own aging (he can no longer see to drive at night).   Yet, just when the reader sees that he or she has this one all figured out, O’Flynn puts in some sharp curves on what’s been an otherwise straight drive.   We learn the shocking truth behind Phil’s death as we see that, for some, life offers new rewards, gifts.

The reader receives the message from O’Flynn that some people never recover from a death; it’s a harsh fact of life.   “He’s never once felt Elsie’s presence since she died.   He watched the last breath leave her body and then the world changed.   She was gone.   He feels her presence all the time…  He understands now.   Our absence is what remains of us.”

O’Flynn has provided her audience with a beautifully balanced treatise on the things that life provides and the things that life takes away from us.   It is a quietly stunning work.

Well recommended.

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

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