Tag Archives: love

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Everyone in Brooklyn was a Dodgers fan at Ebbots Field, at least until the team moved to Los Angeles. If you lived in this borough of New York City from 1951 to 1952 you probably attended Brooklyn College (my father did) and spent time at Coney Island eating a hot dog at Nathan’s. The sand was hot, the ocean cold, the beach was so crowded you had to stake out a good spot, but it was home.

In Brooklyn you lived in a building, often in tiny apartments, saving up money to move where you could have a plot of land of your own. (Actually our apartment was large, inherited from my grandmother who was the original tenant – gotta love that rent control). Having a house with a yard was a dream which every child carried in their heart (and we had to move to a suburb in Buffalo to get that house).

Despite being a large, crowded city, the neighborhoods kept life intimate. You knew the people in your building and the vendors in the local shops, mainly family owned. Yet in between was the busyness of Brooklyn which carried a flavor not found in the surrounding small towns in upstate New York.

Being a diverse metropolis, the rules were a little different. While the various ethnic groups congregated amongst themselves, the shopping centers had to be open to all, whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, or Black, especially here where so many immigrants settled after making the trip across the Atlantic.

This is the city where I was born (at the Caledonia Hospital on Caton Ave). It’s not necessarily the exact place described in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, but my childhood occurred a few years later. (My grandparents were also born in Brooklyn, but their folks came over from Eastern Europe at an earlier, even more desperate time in the late 1800s). Yet, the feel is recognizable.

Enter Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant from the small town of Enniscorthy, who is sponsored by Father Flood in her move to his Irish Parish. He sets up a room for her in an Irish Boarding House with 5 other Irish girls, and arranges for a job as a salesgirl at Bartocci’s, a local department store. Then when Eilis gets homesick, he signs her up for night classes at Brooklyn College to earn her certificate as a bookkeeper, a subject she studied back in Ireland. She meets a nice boy at the Friday Night Dances at the Parish and her life seems perfect, but “stuff” happens.

Eilis is the type of person who goes along to get along. She’s from an era and a culture where women don’t have much of a say in their lives. They are obedient children who marry, keep house, and have children of their own. Ellis seems to go with the flow, unable to speak up when events spin out of control forcing her on a path which she isn’t sure is the right one for her. Her first job back in Ireland is at a local grocery store and the owner simply sends for her, unasked, when she discovers Ellis has a talent for figures. Rose, Ellis’ older sister, arranges for her to travel to America, and “surprises” her with the “fait accompli”. Her behavior at the rooming house is dictated by the owner, and her free time is guided by her housemates. It takes feigning an illness to get out of the Friday night dance, since Ellis doesn’t have the courage to outright refuse to go. Even her beau decides when their relationship should go to the next level and she just guesses that this is okay, although in her heart she is unsure. Fate seems to be her guideposts, and the tide of life sweeps her along its path to the next steps on the most convenient road.

I’m not judging, since her life doesn’t seem to be a hardship, one just wonders what “might have been” and the author even gives us a taste of that before he pulls the rug out from under the reader and has circumstances steer Ellis’ direction back on track.

A delightful and easy read on a bygone era in a beloved (for me) spot. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Tales of India: Folktales from Bengal, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu Illustrated by Svabhu Kohl and Viplov Singh

Tales of India: Folktales from Bengal, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu consists of sixteen stories from the late 1800s through the early 1900s retold and illustrated by Svabhu Kohl and Viplov Singh. These public domain titles repeated over the years by the English and Native inhabitants of India, follow the traditional style we expect when reading old fairy tales. Full of magic, talking animals, evil doers, love, betrayal, kings and queens, kidnappings, rescues, and heroes who are able to overcome adversity through their cleverness, they are sure to delight the lovers of folk lore. With some colorful end pages consisting of a floral pattern alternating yellow, green, pink, orange, red, blue designs, which attractively gives off a sense of ease, the tone is set for the narratives the reader is about to experience.

There are three sections – Animal Tales, Outwitting and Outwitted, and Life and Death, with each story beginning with a “framed” illustration full of color and whimsy which provides an inkling of the subject matter of that particular tale. There are a variety of adventures lasting between three and ten pages including The Bengal story, The Brahman Girl Who Married A Tiger, featuring a young girl who is tricked into marrying a tiger and has to be rescued by her brothers; the Punjab folk lore, The King and the Robbers, which tells about a disguised king on a lark who joins a group of thieves and ends up raiding his own palace treasures, each individual contributing their unique special talent; and the Tamil Nadu tale, The Beggar and the Five Muffins, about a couple who are almost burned alive for the sake of an extra serving of dinner. This book would be the perfect addition to any collection of folk and fairy tales.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa translated by Archibald Colquhoun

What pushes a piece of literature from a mere book into a work of art? Is it the ability to construct a significant moment in time transporting us to another era? Is it the exquisitely expressive language making the surroundings come alive? Or is it the richness of the characters spawning a three dimensional persona which transcends the words on the page?

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa is a novel which demonstrates all of the above and more. Perhaps it’s because the story is based on the life of Lampedusa’s Great Grandfather as well as the Palace outside his home of Palmero which was bombed during World War II. Perhaps it’s because The Leopard explores the ramifications of the reunification of Italy, focusing on Garibaldi who overthrew the monarchy and was then himself overthrown. Perhaps it’s because the author had lived through two world wars and was full of memories of a different time when being an aristocrat represented a noble dignity which was revered by the common folk.

In any case, Lampedusa spent the last few years of his life creating a piece of literature which was eventually considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the twentieth century, winning the Premio Strega in 1959. Unfortunately, these accolades came too late, since he was unsuccessful in finding anyone willing to publish this book during his lifetime.

Don Fabrizio is a Sicilian Prince from Salina watching the aristocratic way of life fading away during a series of political upheavals in 1865. A dreamer, forced to focus on his day to day responsibilities, he finds refuge in watching the stars and studying mathematics, a past time disdained by the common man but excused in someone so distinguished and revered. The Prince has been brought up with refined sensibilities, polite to a fault, and observing all the niceties of nobility, attributes he finds lacking in his own sons. It’s his charismatic nephew, Tancredi Falconari, who has the qualities to carry on the tradition. Fabrizio, at the age of forty five, looks back on his life contemplating the past and reliving the glory days via the romance between Tancredi and the bewitching Angelica Sedara. When Angelica kisses the middle-aged Don on the check and calls him uncle, he gladly gives her a piece of his heart.

The climax of the plot is not the Leopard’s death at the age of seventy +, but the ball he attends where he sees his former lovers, now old like him, and laments his lost youth. Hiding away in the library, Tancredi and Angelica find him and drag him back to the party where he, an excellent dancer, has one waltz with his beautiful niece-to-be, becoming the focus of attention for a roomful of admirers who spontaneously break into applause. Not wanting to be a third wheel, he resists their pleas to join them for supper and instead stands in the corner watching their mutual devotion while eating a decadent dessert. In the movie, starring an all Italian cast (except for lead actor, Burt Lancaster), this scene is the major focus of the film.

In the end all that’s left are his elderly three daughters trying to hang on to what remains of their family dignity via the private religious services in the family chapel. Connecting their bittersweet past to “modern times” is the pelt of their long deceased papa’s favorite dog, Bendico. In order to move forward, leaving unrequited grievances behind, this symbol must be discarded. After all, it’s all about things “changing in order that they may remain the same”.

This book is so rich in imagery and content that my remarks fail to do it justice. Amazingly, Archibald Colquhoun captures the melancholy essence of Lampedusa’s words in his translation. In fact, the reader would never guess that the original was not written in English. While there isn’t a lot of action, the strong presence of the characters, especially The Prince, carries the plot. Five stars.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

In the past, the mass media has presented only one type of norm, the perfect family situation with a husband, wife, and two to three somewhat “ordinary” children. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t match this utopia, so those on the “outside” are made to feel inconsequential for not meeting this ideal. Recently there has been a turnabout with books, television, movies, and even the news, celebrating a diversity of practices. With this change has come an acknowledgement of the LGBTQ community who continue to fight for a positive affirmation. While we aren’t quite there yet, it’s important that literature for children reflect this dynamic so the next generation grows up with a receptive perception of these “alternative” lifestyles which are actually quite common place. Even more important is to develop a prevailing existence of role models who reflect the reader’s intrinsic sensibilities so that they, too, can proudly hold their heads high without hiding their innate psyches.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is just such a book. Taking place in Paris where the first mega department store is going to open, the King and Queen of Brussels are visiting their French cousin with their sixteen year old son, Prince Sebastian. The King is pushing for his son to marry, even at this young age, to secure the future throne. He is even being allowed to choose which of the eligible ladies would suit him best, as compared to his parents’ arranged marriage. Sebastian, however, has a secret which he fears will embarrass his family and any future spouse. He loves fashion, and not just any fashion, but women’s clothing – the more outlandish the better! So when he sees an unusual, but creative style garment at his introductory ball, he sends for the seamstress with an eye for such spectacular design, so she can develop similar avante garde creations for himself to wear.

Frances is excited to design for royalty, even if the fabulous dresses are for the prince. Together they go out into society, he under the persona of Lady Crystallia who becomes a trendsetter in the Paris Fashion World, she as his designer. As Sebastian’s fame grows, so does his worries of being discovered, forcing him to distance himself from Frances despite their budding attraction and close friendship. Although she loves Sebastian for who he is, she also needs to pursue her dreams of becoming a noted couturier.

How this tale is resolved is heartwarming, despite some emotional drama. Will his parents reject a son who does not meet their expectations? Can society accept a cross dresser as royalty? Does Sebastian need to suppress the Lady Crystallia inside or can he continue going out in public showing his authentic self? Can he find true love outside the normal aristocratic channels? And can Frances develop avant garde creations using her genuine talents or must she suppress her inner genius and conform to the norms dictated by the rules of French Fashion?

This is some heavy stuff for a graphic novel, beautifully written and illustrated by Wang who is often able to advance the storyline just with her drawings, letting the expressive faces tell the tale without any words. The color pops, the fashion stuns, the storyline surprises, the ending positively resolves a touchy subject. The cartoon like illustrations lend themselves towards middle school, although older students will also appreciate the gender fluid, transvestite subject matter.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, translated by Henning Koch

This book made me cry.

“People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.” And that was enough!

Fredrik Backman has created a truly eccentric personality in main character Ove, a grumpy malcontent with a big heart underneath who’s a stickler for the rules (as he conceives them) but grudgingly lends a hand (actually he takes over) to make sure the job is done right.

Despite the way Ove views the world, or maybe because of it, you kind of have to love this guy even wth his negative attitudes towards almost everything, except his wife who he dearly loves, (although he also has a soft spot for the Saab he drives). Fate in all its glory, both the good and the bad, keeps dictating Ove’s path, interceding when it seems like there’s no way forward. Not too long, (336 pages), A Man Called Ove is a mesmerizing read, one of those can’t put it down books which instantly peaks your interest. I really can’t say too much more or I’ll spoil the “fun” as you discover the whats and whys on your own.

The translation from the original Swedish can be jarring at times (I’m not a fan of first person narration), but there are some clever phrases that will bring a smile to your face and even an occasional laugh. My only complaint is that Ove acted older than his fifty nine years, but then again, he was born an old man. This one has been on my “To Read List” for awhile and it did not disappoint. I can see why A Man Called Ove was a New York Times Bestseller for almost a year – a perfect choice for a movie (made in Sweden in 2015). Five stars. Enjoy!

The greatest compliment : May I be “unlike you in the smallest number of ways”.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Everybody has a secret, but when someone’s past interfere with the lives of others, it’s no longer a secret, it’s a crime. Then to make it all more interesting, add in a twist of the bizarre – perhaps a freak of nature, perhaps a supernatural phenomena, perhaps a curse perpetuated on all mankind hidden away until the right time to strike.

When would such an evil manifest itself? Just look at the hidden endangerments of our past, such as out in the wilderness of the California Trail from 1946-47 where travel was already fraught with jeopardy from the varieties of both human nature and the elements. Take a true story such as, The Donner Party, which already has a tendency to make the reader squeamish, then come up with an alternate explanation for the tragedy which took the lives of half the pioneers heading west through the treacherous Hastings Cutoff and the Sierra Nevada, made even more deadly by the brutal winter, and add in an evil lurking along the trail.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu intertwines historical facts with a fictional explanation to create an aberrant account depicting the lives of a group of travelers heading to California. Put ninety people (young and old, haves and have nots, families and loners) together and there’s bound to be trouble, even without a danger lurking in the background. Warning: don’t get too attached to any of the individual members of this trip, even the ones who sense what is happening, because their chances of survival are minimal.

At first I thought this was just another take on the Donner Party catastrophe, but then I began to realize this particular quirky tale was perhaps a bit more. The breezy style of the author rounded out the personalities of the numerous characters, adding extra details and motivations via letters or backstories from an earlier time. Although I knew the foregone conclusion, the author was able to put a different slant on the saga to keep me guessing right up to the end. My major complaint was the difficulty I had keeping track of all the names and identities of everyone in the story, which could have been easily solved by a brief annotated list or family tree of all the participants in the caravan. It need not be stated that the unanticipated shortage of supplies, along with an enemy with a voracious appetite, leant itself to a title indicating the need for food.

Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Putnam Sons for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

If The Story of Arthur Truluv was a movie, you’d find it on the Hallmark Channel. Elizabeth Berg has created one of those melodramatic, heart wrenching, over the top dramas filled with the angst of loves both lost and found as three disparate characters find comfort as they form an unusual sort of alliance.

You have the teen girl who doesn’t know where her life is headed living with a father who has been disconnected from his daughter since the tragic death of his wife. Maddy doesn’t seem to fit in with anyone at school and even the new boy indicates he is not interested. Since everywhere she goes her peers whisper and mock, she skips school to spend time reflecting at a local cemetery. She’s not the only one who finds the locale soothing. It is here that Maddy meets octogenarian Arthur Moses, an elderly gentleman who every day brings a bag lunch to his wife’s gravesite to enjoy a meal with his long gone mate. Somehow the two form a connection and Arthur lets Maddy know that he’ll be there for her if she ever needs a friend. Then there’s Arthur’s elderly neighbor, Lucille, who spends her days sitting out on her porch keeping track of all the doings, collecting gossip the way some people collect stamps. Her opinionated manner is excused by her skill in the kitchen, freely sharing her creations with Arthur. Arthur, who mostly eats canned beans and franks (which he divvies up with his cat), sympathizes with the lonely woman as he eats her mouth watering butter orange blossom cookies. Somehow, through a series of events, the three end up facing the future together finding comfort and even happiness as they create a unique sort of blended family transcending the usual mother, father, child homelife.

Add in a kind hearted teacher who reaches out to his artistic, though lackluster student, a lost love who finds his way home, and a skeevy boyfriend who just wants a good time without any commitments, and you have a charming little story perfect for a rainy afternoon.

While the simplistic style fits the subject matter and the rotating point of view between the three main characters gives us a decent grasp of their motivations, I had a problem with the use of present tense to tell the story. Very few are able to use this technique successfully, and Berg, unfortunately, is not one of those authors, at least not in this book. Perhaps modifications were made before publication, since my copy was an ARC provided by Netgalley (in exchange for an honest review). I also felt the ending was too abrupt, I would have liked a little more closure, especially considering the book was only 220 or so pages (and give us some dates, not just clues from the headstones). Of note, however, were the sweet little vignettes from the graveyard, where Arthur was able to relate telepathically with the deceased and share bits and pieces of their life and death with the reader. Three and a half stars.