Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

Ms. LaCour can pack a lot into three days, which is the time span of her latest novel, We Are Okay.  (By the way, it only took me two days to read, it’s that engrossing.) Mabel’s mother died when she was  young and she lived with her grandfather, each having their own bedroom and sharing the common space of the kitchen, living room and dining room. Respecting each other’s privacy, neither ventured into the inner sanctum of the other.

But one summer day after high school graduation, Gramps doesn’t answer when Marin comes home. Busy with summer fun and new girlfriend, Mabel, Marin has pretty much ignored Gramps, minimizing his failing health. Fearing the worst, Marin enters her grandfather’s bedroom, which actually consists of a sitting room and adjoining room and discovers something she never thought existed and which changed her opinion of Gramps forever.

The police are called and a shaken Marin is taken to the police station but rather than go home with Mabel’s parents (who are almost like a second set of parents) she slips out the back door and boards a bus from California to upstate New York and college with nothing but the shirt on her back, her cell phone and her debit card, even though school doesn’t start for two weeks. She ignores Mabel’s frantic texts for weeks before they dwindle into non-existence.

However, Mabel hasn’t given up and visits Marin at school for three days over Christmas break, which is where the story unfolds.

Through the action of the present and flashbacks to the previous summer, readers understand the torture that these two young women underwent, the loss of a grandparent, the loss of a friend. But it also reinforces the concept of family which is not just biological commonality. Mabel and Marin are endearing characters. You like them immediately. Their pain is understandable. The awkwardness of their reunion is palpable.

We Are Okay is both happy and sad and wonderful. And should you like it, don’t forget Everything Leads to You and Hold Still.

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Reading, like other things, go in cycles. TheThingAboutJellyfishThe Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is the first of two books in a row I’ve read about a girl losing her best friend. (The second WhenKaceyLeftis When Kacey Left by Dawn Green.)

Twelve year old Suzy (aka Zu) lost her best friend Franny during the summer. Franny drowned while on vacation. However, Zu can’t come to grips with this because Franny was a great swimmer. She remembers when they met at their first swim class when Zu didn’t want to go into the pool and Franny just plopped in and swam to the other side. Zu then did the same and they became fast friends. Her mother’s explanation that ‘things just happen’ doesn’t quiet her mind.

Zu evaluates all the possible causes of Franny’s drowning and comes up with the idea that she was bitten by a poisonous Irukandji jellyfish and her goal now is to prove it. She decided not to talk (because there is nothing important to say) until she’s proven her hypothesis, which of course worried her parents who sent her to ‘the kind of doctor you can talk to.”

But there’s something else bothering Zu as well: she and Franny did not part on good terms. Would it have been different if she had known she’d never see Franny again? Of course, but you can’t change the past.

The Thing About Jellyfish is finely written middle grade book about losing a best friend, about being or becoming a loner, about overcoming loneliness and remembering good times. In the process, Benjamin contemplates the changes middle graders (especially girls) go through, how a loner in elementary school might be part of the ‘in-crowd’ in middle school and what she might do to a best friend to maintain her social status and the impact of her actions.

And finally, Ms. Benjamin imparts a tremendous amount of information about jellyfish that boggled this reader’s mind: their longevity as a species, their lethal venom, their growing population and its impact on other water borne species and their ability to regress in the face of danger.

The Thing About Jellyfish, deservedly,  has been getting accolades in all the library journals and The New York Times. It is a tenderhearted story that kids and adults will enjoy.

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WordsAndTheirMeainingsIt is June and the one year deadaversary of Anna’s bruncle Joe. Joe was really her uncle, her dad’s brother, but since he was only a few years older than Anna, he was more like a brother. He was living in their house and her father acted more like a father to Joe than a brother. Anna worshipped Joe. He was her best friend and they told each other everything. Anna blames herself for Joe’s death, which also caused her parents to split up and get divorced. She’s got a lot on her mind. Her Gramps, her maternal grandfather, seems to be the one holding the family together.

Since Joe’s death, Anna’s been practicing ‘coffin yoga’ where she lies on her bed pretending she was dead. She also writes lines from Patti Smith songs on her arm every day. Her seven year old sister Bea acts out differently…she hides in places in which she can’t be found, except Anna can find her.

Anna’s behavior is causing concern for her parents. They force her to ‘act normal’ for the summer and get a summer job or they will send her to a special school that deals with her abnormal behavior. Her best friend Natalie gets her a job waitressing where she meets Mateo and soon a relationship blossoms.

Bassett’s debut novel, Words and Their Meanings, takes us through the summer. Of course this is a summer of discovery. Anna discovers that Joe wasn’t as great as she perceived him to be. She discovered that her father, who left the family after Joe’s death, wasn’t as bad as she perceived him to be. She discovered that a flourishing romance can break her out of her guilt ridden emotions and show that life is worth living, that the future holds promise.

Words and Their Meanings is a combination of the obvious and the not so obvious. Unfortunately, for me anyway, seven year old Bea was a much more entertaining character than Anna, and while never having experienced the kind of loss Anaa experienced, to me her actions didn’t ring true. Bea, on the other hand, acted like a seven year old, at times hiding in the oddest places and at other times asking the questions a seven year old would ask, not the great philosophical questions but the practical questions like where will Joe go after his death (meaning geographically, not spiritually)?

Some twists and turns at the end were unnecessary for the story, in my mind.

So, overall, while I enjoyed Words and Their Meanings, it started out with more promise than it ended up with.




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BelmanAndBlackYou all know how much I was looking forward to Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield. Well, unfortunately I was somewhat disappointed. While Ms. Setterfield’s use of language is remarkable, the storyline and characters were somewhat less so, in my opinion. But, bear in mind, I’m a literary reader, meaning I read for the story, not the unlying, hidden meanings and symbolism, of which I’m sure there were many in this book.

An author recently posited on Facebook that the quality of books nowadays is being judged on whether the characters are likable and that shouldn’t be the criterion. I agree. However, you should feel something for the characters; love, hate, sympathy; something that will drive you further into the book. Does the character you love get the guy in the end (so to speak)? Does the one you hate get his/her comeuppance?

A book fails, again in my humble opinion, when you don’t feel anything for the characters and that is my issue with Bellman & Black. I felt nothing for the main character, William Bellman, throughout his triumphs and his miseries. He was a man who initially became a workaholic to drown out his sorrow and which ultimately separated him from the rest of society.

Let me know your thoughts on the book. I’d be really interested.

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LevelsOfLifeIn Levels of Life, the latest work by Julian Barnes, he appropriately compares love to hot air ballooning. Both allow you to feel lighter than air, let you soar above the clouds, are exhilarating. However, with both endeavors comes the knowledge that you may, at any moment, crash and burn.

And so he opens this book with the following: “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.” He goes on in the first two parts, The Sin of Height and On the Level, to describe three people who had ballooning adventures, their lives, their loves, their connection: Colonel Fred Burnaby, Sarah Bernhardt and Felix Tournachon. (I felt compelled to look them up after reading about them.)

“You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Thus begins On the Level which describes just such stories…sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, as we can all attest.

It is part three, The Loss of Depth, in which he finally discusses the devastating death of his wife. “You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer to burn and crash, or crash and burn? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”

There are some beautiful words in Levels of Life. I especially loved pages 34 and 35 (way too long to recreate here). I found the first two parts unbelievably interesting, poignant at times, heart wrenching at times. Unfortunately, part three, which should be the most heart wrenching I found to be too dense. All the parts are there: his grief, the way friends either avoid the subject or wear their grief on their sleeves, clichés of things getting better, easier, the loneliness. It’s all there and all deeply emotional, but it was not the part of the book that kept me reading. I know I’ll be in a minority. I know some readers may say I’m heartless.  Some will say I’ve never been in that situation (which I haven’t) and when such time comes, it’ll mean more. And so it may.

But I DO know sometimes “You put together two people who have not been put together before, and sometimes the world is changed and sometimes not….But sometimes something new is made; and then the world is changed. Together, in the first exultation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clerarly.”

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DeathOfSantiniGosh, what to say about The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy. I could and will say that if you read The Great Santini, you’ve read some of this Conroy biography, but certainly not all of it. I could say I liked the book but it’s not a book you ‘like’, it’s a book you get sucked into because there’s so much raw emotion going on…love, hate, racism, abuse, family, sorrow, joy. When I first started reading The Death of Santini, I was appalled at Don Conroy’s treatment of his wife and children and no one would have faulted me for putting the book down. But on I went, to the very last page.GreatSantini

The Death of Santini is a raw book, not filled with flowery language. It is the factual recounting of Pat Conroy’s life as the son of Don and Peg Conroy, the union of an Irish Catholic from Chicago and a poor southern girl from the Appalachian mountains whose mother abandoned her family at the height of the depression, leaving them with nothing. Pat and his six siblings moved around a lot, the life of a Marine family, were the recipients of beatings from an abusive father and the fallout from this was everlasting and widespread and powerful.

I’m not sure why Conroy felt compelled to write this book since it’s predecessor, though fiction, pretty well recounted many incidents in the current book. It felt like he had to purge himself of his demons, his guilt at standing idly by while siblings were abused, his hatred, or more accurately love-hate emotion towards his father, his adoration of his beautiful but surely imperfect mother, his dives into the depths of depression, his distance from his sister.

But as you read, you see Conroy’s problem. Children love their parents, typically, yet both his parents, to some extent, were abusive. What is a boy and then a man supposed to feel? Two of his siblings were spiraling towards mental illness, yet his parents refused to acknowledge it and Pat was powerless.

As Conroy introduces you to his northern and southern relatives you learn so many things: (1) abuse, while maybe not genetically transferred, certainly runs in families and is transferred to following generations, nor is it limited to liberally or conservatively thinking people, (2) racism is not only a Southern emotion, (3) the impact of dysfunctional families is widespread and deep.

I’ll conclude by telling you, as I did in the beginning, I’m not sure I ‘liked” The Death of Santini. I’m glad I read it and will highly recommend it to others, but did I like it? Hmmmm. No. If you’re looking for a literary masterpiece with flowery language, I suggest you look elsewhere. The Death of Santini is, at times, disjointed (as is this review) and repetitious within itself. However, it has a cast of interesting, unimaginable characters that some of the most able fiction writers could never conceive. It didn’t make me laugh. It didn’t make me cry. Coming from a ‘relatively’ normal family, I think it made me sit there in disbelief.

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OnionStreetIf you’re a Moe Prager fan, you’ll know that in the last book he found out he has cancer. In his latest, Onion Street, his daughter, concerned about him, is visiting and asks why he became a cop. That’s the end of the present day. He then begins a long story leading up to his applying to the police academy. The story includes bombs, drug smuggling, beatings, drives through Brooklyn and more.

Reed Farrel Coleman’s books are always a good read and this is no exception, once you get past the implausibility of the situations Moe, as a college student, gets into and the actions that he takes. No college student I know or knew back in the day would do any of the things he did, let alone all of the things he did.  But then again, I grew up in Queens, which although geographically close, psychologically is a long way from Brooklyn. Maybe they did things differently there.

Anyway, as I said, once you get past this, it’s a fun read. Coleman brings up locales and TV shows from the period. Some of them are vivid. Any of you who routinely took the Belt Parkway past the garbage dumps can, even now, visualize and actually smell the noxious fumes. The rumble of the elevated trains never leaves you. The book brought back memories of me and my grandparents walking in Brighton Beach, getting Mrs. Stahl’s knishes, the shadow of the El darkening the street.

So, now that I think about it, Onion Street was more a walk down memory lane for me than a believable mystery. But, so what! I really enjoyed it. That’s what counts.

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DogCalledHomeless“My name is Cally Louise Fisher, and I haven’t spoken for thirty-one days.” So opens the heart-warming A Dog Called Homeless, the debut novel by Sarah Lean, which won the Schneider Family Book Award which honors “an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences”. Not bad for a debut novel.

What started out as a fund raiser, get sponsors who think you can stay silent for one whole school day, turned into a 31 day rally for Cally, because once she saw that people treated her no differently, it didn’t seem important to talk.

Background: Cally’s mother died in an auto accident a year before. Since then, her father has withdrawn, they’ve had to move into a smaller apartment and her best friend ditched her. She ‘sees’ her mother in various places, the first time at the cemetary on the anniversary of her death, but no one believes her. So, what’s the sense of talking. The second time Cally sees her mom, a big grey wolfhound is with her…except the dog is real.

Her downstairs neighbor is Sam, who is totally blind, mostly deaf  and has a heart murmer. Sam’s mother teaches Cally how to ‘write on Sam’s hand’, which according to Cally isn’t considered talking. Together, the two tackle the hardships of their particular worlds.

As I said at the beginning, A Dog Called Homeless is a heart-warming, charming book that will teach you about what’s important in life, how to deal with the loss of someone close to you and the love of family. I should have seen the ending coming, but I didn’t. It was a great ending, as far as I’m concerned. Cally is a darling of a girl and A Dog Called Homeless is a darling of a book.

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