Book review: The lies that bind

51xLRaJHsxL._SY346_Ann Patchett is one of my favorites. Her ability to place a reader into a scene and inside the heads and hearts of her characters is masterful. She is funny, perceptive, and even-handed as she tells this family saga from deep inside.

The first words of Commonwealth plunge us into a christening party for little Franny Keating. Bert Cousins is an uninvited guest who arrives with a huge bottle of gin. Franny’s L.A. cop dad, Fix Keating, her pretty mother, Beverly, and Bert set the whole story in motion when after a few too many glasses of orange juice laced with that gin, Beverly kisses Bert. Or he kisses her. It hardly matters. Divorce and the inevitable blending of two families ensue. The six children spend summers together in Virginia with minimal supervision from Beverly and Bert.

“The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”

Those summers of running amok lead to a tragedy that the children witness, and the details of which they keep secret. That secret both shatters and binds them. Everyone involved is affected by the event, not least of all Franny. At twenty-something, she’s a law school dropout and cocktail waitress with a degree in English. She meets and falls in love with—or perhaps in awe of—a famous novelist. Like Scheherazade, she entertains Leo Pozen with the story of those raucous long-ago summers, including the secret. He is inspired by her tale, and uses it as the basis for a new novel, which becomes a bestseller and years later, a movie.

Now in midlife, the children are rocked by the public disclosure, but are still bound by the love and responsibility they share toward each other and their now aging parents and step-parents.

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Author, Ann Patchett

“‘People are scared of the wrong things, Fix said, his eyes closed. ‘Cops are scared of the wrong things. We go around thinking that what’s going to get us is waiting on the other side of the door: it’s outside, it’s in the closet, but it isn’t like that… For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.’”

I recommend Commonwealth and these two others by Patchett. Enjoy!

Book review: The art of making something from nothing

lucy-bartonMy Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout  has written a gentle book with no real plot or movement except back and forth in time. A young mother and writer is hospitalized for many weeks with a serious but undiagnosed illness.  At her husband’s request, her estranged mother comes to stay with her–in her hospital room. She’s there 24 hours a day, refusing the cot she is offered, refusing to leave, or to sleep.  This visit—the only way her mother seems capable of saying, “I love you,” –brings up painful memories of the unhealthy, dysfunctional family they shared. Lucy realizes “… how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts.”

While there, the mother relates stories of other people’s unhappy marriages, seemingly unaware of her own.  Lucy reflects, “I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the cervices of my mouth, reminding me.”

When her mother-in-law reminds her that she “comes from nothing,” it rankles her. “But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.” Indeed, the “nothing” others may see is the stuff from which we create our lives. Nothing isn’t nothing.

School and books save Lucy. As she writes her novel, her mentor assures her, “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Her advice is to go “… to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” And she does.

While Strout’s writing is poignant and evocative, I was left wanting more of a pay-off or big reveal. I remember having similar thoughts when I read Olive Kittridge. Have you read either of these? What did you think? Is there enough here to make a good story?

olive
Also an Emmy winning HBO mini-series

Book review: Just who is truly mad and truly guilty?

514kx79myl__sy346_Truly Madly Guilty

First, let me express my love/hate for Liane Moriarty’s ability to suck me in and keep me reading just one more chapter. She made me care about the characters and then she dropped bread crumbs of information at just the right moment. In short, it is pacing perfection.  Or torture.  I like to read to fall asleep and this one kept me awake.  Not scary, but certainly compelling.

Erika and Clementine’s friendship has always been an uneven, uneasy one. As children, Clementine’s do-gooder mother pushed her to be friends with Erika, whose family life was a dysfunctional mess. Erika became a project of sorts that Clementine often resented.   Clementine, a cellist, has always been a little absent-minded, disorganized, and careless. Where did that ice-cream scoop disappear to? Erika, an accountant, is neat, orderly, and conscientious–maybe a little OCD. There is a sense, now that they are adults, that the traits they developed were perhaps in response to one another, as much as anything else.

Something awful (tragic? scandalous?) has happened at a neighborhood barbecue. We aren’t sure what, but it has deeply affected Erika and Clementine. Clementine has taken to giving little motivational speeches about “One Ordinary Day.” Erika has a gap in her memory about the event and keeps trying to fill in that breach. What did she do? Was she to blame?

The question of who’s mad and who’s guilty will lead you through the book. You will suspect just about everyone of something along the way. Moriarty artfully ends each chapter with some little hook to make you read on. And because all these original characters (like the former pole-dancer who is now something of a real estate mogul) tell their own sides of the story, you may have to read a few more chapters to satisfy your curiosity. I just couldn’t stop.

Their spouses, children, parents, and neighbors all play a role and each one feels a bit of guilt for what happened. And I’ll bet you’ll be both surprised and touched by how each person—from the youngest to the oldest– responds in their own way. Recommend.

Others books by Liane Moriarty you might enjoy. I did.

 

Book review: Squabbles in the nest

the-nestThe Nest

by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Four adult children of the Plumb family are all planning on a large gift from the estate of their father, which they’ve taken to calling “The Nest” Their deceased father believed, “…that money and its concurrent rewards should flow from work, effort, commitment, and routine” and lived accordingly. For the most part, his children have lived differently.

According to the terms of the inheritance, each would get an equal portion when the youngest, Melody, turned forty. Until now, they have each been living their lives in anxious anticipation of a very large monetary gift. They’ve run up substantial debts which they have concealed from their spouses, knowing that the Nest would bail them out. However, their mother—still alive and now remarried—pays to hush up a tragic scandal involving Leo—their charming but untrustworthy brother. Trouble is, she pays it out of the Nest, which reduces their shares to a fraction of what they were expecting. They’ve made promises they simply can’t keep, debts they can’t pay, kept secrets and told lies that will now be exposed. What to do? How will they get out of the mess they’ve helped to create? Can they somehow convince their siblings that they are more deserving of a larger share? Can they trust Leo to repay the Nest?

Each character is well drawn with quirks and idiosyncrasies that let readers get to know them and their motivations. Even the secondary characters are fully realized. Sweeney alternates points of view masterfully, so that each character gets to plead their own case as the reader is drawn through this warm, fun, and satisfying read.

A few  examples of Sweeney’s fine writing:

 “Her resolve melted and her clenched knees unfurled like the petals of a ripening peony.”

“The quick pulse at the corner of her eye was beating as if there were tiny wings trapped beneath the skin.”

“…her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might cross the street ahead of her.”

If you enjoy listening in on family dynamics—especially when they aren’t your own–you might enjoy this book. You might even find yourself grateful, as I did, that you have the family you do.

Claire’s one really good recipe

Another in the sometime series from “Annie Cooper’s Recipe Scrapbook.” The foods are all mentioned in my still-in-heavy-rewrite novel. Claire holds a tender spot in her heart for this recipe and for one particular member of the family it came from. Enjoy!


Butternut Squash with Apples

from the kitchen of Claire Jordan

Auntie Claire isn’t much of a cook and I was surprised when Mom told me this favorite fall recipe was hers. When I asked Auntie Claire about its origin, she got a faraway look in her eyes and said it came from the mother of an old college friend. Somehow I got the feeling that there was more to the story.

  •  About 1 ½ pounds butternut squash, peeled and chopped.  About 5 cups. Many produce departments now carry peeled and chopped squash.
  • 4 medium tart apples, chopped.
  • ½ cup dried cranberries, cherries, raisins, or combination
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
  • 1 ½ tsp. grated fresh ginger or 1 Tbsp. ground ginger
  • ½ tsp. salt (or more to taste)
  • 1/8 tsp. black (or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup butter or margarine

Directions: In a slow-cooker combine all ingredients and stir. Cover and cook on low setting for 3-4 hours or on high for 1 ½ hours.

Book review: Why you want to catch flies, vinegar girl?

41ajuyjmvpl-_sy346_I’ve been reading and enjoying Anne Tyler’s books for decades, beginning with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. Her quirky, yet somehow recognizable characters always make me smile.

Vinegar Girl is no exception. It is a contemporary retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” and is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which respected and diverse authors take on Shakespeare’s best-known stories.

Here, Kate Battista finds herself stuck teaching preschool and running the house for her widowed, eccentric research scientist father and pretty teenage sister, Bunny. Being a scientist, her father has an efficient system for just about everything, from loading the dishwasher to doing laundry. He even thinks cooking just once for the entire week simply makes sense. Watch for his formula for “meat mash.” Naturally, Kate’s forthright and somewhat prickly manner means she’s almost always offending someone.

Trouble starts when Dr. Battista, who is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that could help millions, has his lifetime of research threatened by the imminent deportation of his foreign-born lab assistant, Pyotr. What to do? An arranged marriage, of course! Kate reluctantly agrees only after it is made clear that the marriage will only be on paper. They just need to convince the Immigration authorities. But then…

Tyler writes some funny and poignant situations around the issues of romance, getting acquainted, family dynamics, and feminism. It’s a comedy with a heart, to be sure.

Pyotr explains something about his country:

 “In my country they have a proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’”

This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country they say that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously…But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”

On Pyotr’s odd attempts at flattery:

“He had a foreigner’s tendency toward bald, obvious compliments, dropping them with a thud at her feet like a cat presenting her with a dead mouse.”

An excerpt from Kate’s big speech on men:

“Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”

 

A river runs through Miller’s Valley

Are you an Anna Quindlen fan? I am. Her fiction and nonfiction both ring true for me. Her latest, Miller’s Valley, is no exception.

If you are writer, you will notice right away the skill with which she weaves this story, adding just the right evocative and telling details, while making you care about certain characters and be suspicious of others. She never insults your intelligence. If you’re not a writer, you may only notice how quickly and seamlessly she draws you into the story.

The protagonist, a reminiscent Mimi (Mary Margaret) Miller, tells a story beginning in the 1950s, when she is pre-teen in rural Pennsylvania. Through her telling, she drops only a few enticing hints along the way as to the eventual outcome. That’s the trail of breadcrumbs through the forest by which an expert novelist leads us, compels us, to turn the page. Quindlen is good.

The Miller’s family farm and life are under threat of increased flooding, a proposed government water project, not to mention constant financial concerns. Mimi’s own future is in doubt when her father has a stroke and can no longer subsidize their farming operations with his fix-it shop. Mystery surrounds the long-running feud between her nurse mother and reclusive aunt. Mimi shows herself to be smart, hardworking, and devoted to her family. She does make a mistake or two, however, and readers can only stand by and ache with her as she makes difficult choices, learns life lessons, and attempts to  move forward.

Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen, one of my faves

Lessons from childhood:

“I figured that most of being a kid consisted of eavesdropping, trying to figure older people out and understand what they were going to do next, because whatever they were going to do next was surely going to have some effect on you.”

“When I was a kid it seemed like God’s will was always that bad things happened, mostly to nice people. When Eddie got his scholarship, when LaRhonda’s father started to make a lot of money, nobody ever said that was God’s will. With Mr. Venti they mainly said it was dumb luck.”

About an unplanned pregnancy, Mimi didn’t yet think of as a baby:

“I thought of it as an anchor, dragging me down. I thought of it as my mother’s disappointment like a living thing, more real, than whatever has been inside of me…”

And about her beloved but troubled brother, suffering from PTSD after coming home from Vietnam:

“It’s a lot harder to save people that you think it is.”

The essence of family, friendship, love, and home shone through here and left me feeling satisfied. Recommend.

Novel oatmeal camping cake

Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cake with Broiled Topping

Oatmeal Cake (a.k.a. Camping Cake)

from the kitchen of Fran McCormack and Libby McCormack Cooper

I’m not sure where the original came from, but Mom called it “Oatmeal Cake.” My girls call it “Camping Cake” since we always took it camping. Mom made it in an aluminum pan with a sliding lid, like the one pictured below, so even on camping trips it stayed wonderfully moist and un-squashed. No small feat. It is definitely not figure-friendly, but it does contain oatmeal, so perhaps Mom thought it qualified as healthy for that reason alone. Note: If you leave the knife in the pan, the cake seems to disappear by inches, not whole slices. Just sayin’.

Vintage “Maid of Honor” pan, available at thrift stores, garage sales, and ebay. Sorry, but no, mine is not for sale.

 

Cake:

1 cup oats

1 ½ cup hot water

½ cup butter or margarine

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

2 unbeaten eggs

1 ½ cups flour

1 tsp. soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. salt

  1. Pour water over oats. Set aside.
  2. Cream butter sugars and eggs until smooth
  3. Add dry ingredients. Add oatmeal last. Beat well.
  4. Pour into greased 9×12 pan.
  5. Bake 30 min. @ 350

Broiled Icing:

¾ cube of butter

1 T. milk

¾ cup brown sugar

1 ½ cup coconut

1 cup chopped walnuts, pecans, or almonds

  1. Melt butter in saucepan and add sugar
  2. Cook one minute.
  3. Add coconut & nuts.
  4. Spread on warm cake & broil. Watch closely!
  5. Cool completely before serving or covering.

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    This one is ready to go!