Saturday, February 24, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

This was a really interesting book about family dynamics, class divides and the long lasting impact of secrets.

The Richardson family lives in Shaker Heights, "America's original planned community", a staid suburb of Cleveland that has rules about everything from the colour paint you can use to the placement of trees.  The family matriarch, Elena, who was born and raised in Shaker Heights likes nothing more than to live by those rules.  She only left to go to college where she met her husband, a successful lawyer, and then returned to have four children in rapid succession and to work part time as a reporter for a community newspaper (where she only covers "feel good" stories).

Elena inherited a duplex from her parents which she rents out at reduced rents as her own effort to help those in need.  Her latest upstairs tenants are Mia, a single mother, and her daughter Pearl.  All four of the Richardson children become drawn to the tenants.  Moody, the second youngest, is Pearl's age and he initially befriends her, then falls in love with her.  But he has competition from his older brother, Troy, who has caught Pearl's attention.  The oldest daughter, Lexie, seems to befriend Pearl, but in fact uses her with ultimately disastrous consequences.  The youngest, Izzy, who is the black sheep of the family is drawn to Mia, who is a wandering artist whose life has been the polar opposite of Izzy's structured mother's.

When friends of the Richardson's adopt a Chinese American baby, it pits Elena against Mia and causes Elena to dig into Mia's past.  What she finds, and the incorrect assumptions she makes, have consequences for everyone involved and tear apart her own family in ways she could never have predicted.

I don't want to give away more of the plot as it was expertly woven by the author and, while I would not describe the book as a thriller per se, knowing more about it would destroy the enjoyment of watching the story unfold as you go.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

What we Lose, A Novel by Zinzi Clemmons

While this is a novel, I suspect from the acknowledgments that it is at least partially autobiographical.  Like the author, the narrator, Thandi is a mixed race woman born in Pennsylvania to a South African mixed race mother and an African American father.

The book is structured more like a collection of musings or blog entries than a novel, but it is nonetheless very engaging.  It moves back in forth in time from Thandi's childhood to her present day as a divorced single mother.  The main theme of the book is how Thandi copes with the death of her mother from cancer - and how this loss impacts her life in a myriad of ways for years to come.

There are some more impersonal entries from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission or other observers of life in South Africa, as well as life expectancy statistics by race in the US, but for the most part this is a highly personal first person narrative.

I very much enjoyed reading about Thandi's relationships with her parents, her best friend, Aminah, her eventual ex-husband, Peter, her son, M and her colourful relations in Johannesburg.  She comes across as a very normal person struggling with a difficult loss - and suffering the consequences of the impact this loss has on her relationships with others, in particular, Peter who she may have married too hastily in order to fill the void.

A very quick and easy read that I recommend.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Forest Dark by Nicole Krause

While I very much enjoyed Krause's prior novels, I don't think I understood this one at all.  I struggled through the whole book hoping it would all come together, but for me it never did.  There were lengthy references to Kafka and maybe if I was more familiar with his work the book would have made sense...

I guess I should have known I wouldn't like this book when the cover page testimonial is from Philip Roth, whose work I detest, but having read her books before I was still hopeful.  My advice to you - don't bother.

Just a brief summary of the two interchanging plots (if they had anything to do with each other besides the fact that they involved strange people on quests through Israel, I couldn't discern it).  Jules Epstein is a 68 year old wealthy man, who in the wake of his parents' deaths, his retirement from his law firm and his divorce, starts giving away all of his assets.  In a last attempt to shed more wealth he travels to Israel to try to set up a memorial of some sort to his parents.  There he is sidetracked by a weird American rabbi who claims Epstein is a direct descendant of King David and invites him to a convention of other such descendants.  While he misses the conference as he is scouting out a location for a forest in honour of his parents, he decides to waste more money funding the rabbi's daughter's movie about the king.  That's about all I understood of his story.

The second story (told in alternating chapters) was about a young novelist who is struggling with writer's block and a failing marriage so abandons her husband and young children to set up shop in the Tel Aviv Hilton where she spent many childhood summers.  She thinks she will write about the hotel and being there will get her started.  Instead she becomes sidetracked by Friedman who she's told is a former Mossad agent.  Friedman tries to convince her he has access to secret works by Kafka and she should complete some of his unfinished works.  He also tells her that contrary to popular belief, Kafka didn't die in Europe but staged his death and moved to Palestine to live as a gardener under an assumed name.  Somehow this leads to her getting dropped off by the army in the desert, developing a fever and ending up in the hospital.  When she gets out Friedman is nowhere to be found - so maybe she imagined the whole thing while suffering from a fever??

Oh, I thought of two other connections between the stories.  Epstein also stayed at the Hilton and his rabbi mentor's house/retreat was called Gilgul which is apparently the Hebrew name for Kafka's Metamorphosis.

If you're confused by this, it's because so was I!