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Posts tagged 'Family Drama'

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

StroutAnythingStrout’s new book combines the best of two of her previous novels, last year’s very popular My Name is Lucy Barton, and 2008’s Olive Kitteridge. Anything Is Possible, to be published April 25, follows the novel-in-stories format of Olive Kitteridge, but the new book is about the characters from Lucy Barton. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I think so.

In case you haven’t read My Name is Lucy Barton, that book’s title character is an author who is hospitalized in New York with a mysterious illness. Her mother, from whom she has been estranged, has taken her first plane trip from tiny Amgash, Illinois, to be by her daughter’s side. For five days, the women tell each other stories; mostly gossip about the interesting, eccentric people they have known over the years from their tiny hometown. The truths of their own lives are not fully addressed.

In Anything Is Possible, Strout writes about Lucy’s childhood neighbors as “characters who deserved their own stories.” The Barton family is seen through the eyes of the locals, and not favorably. Her “hellish childhood”, which is alluded to but not discussed in her namesake book, is illuminated through multiple points of view in the new novel. Lucy herself only makes one appearance, as a famous author who has written a memoir explaining the mysterious backstory of her childhood. She is regarded with disdain, as someone who turned her back on her people and is too fancy for her own good. The Bartons are not the only family in town with secrets, and as the small town neighbors tell their stories, the reader understands the depth of poverty and dysfunction that pervades Amgash.

I know you will wonder if you should read My Name is Lucy Barton to enjoy this sequel, and I recommend that you do. Anything is Possible could easily stand alone, but it is a richer reading experience when you have already read about the characters within.

Short Story  Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary


Moonglow by Michael Chabon

ChabonMGMoonglow, according to Chabon, was inspired by his 1987 visit to his dying grandfather. During that visit, his grandfather revealed secrets of his life to the twenty-four-year-old author. The book is a dream-like distillation of what may or may not have been spoken. To quote the New York Times Book Review:

Moonglow [...] wanders where it will, framing a series of chronologically disordered episodes from the past with conversations involving the narrator (who never tries to persuade us that he is anyone other than Michael Chabon) and various kinfolk, principally his mother and grandfather. This isn’t to say that the book lacks structure, but rather that its structure is determined by the logic of memory, and that the author has resisted the urge to do too much tidying and streamlining. The action zigzags across time and geography—from Germany in the last days of World War II through a grab bag of American locations in the decades after—with blithe indifference to the usual rules of linearity or narrative economy" (Scott, A.O. "Michael Chabon Returns With a Searching Family Saga." The New York Times. 18 Nov. 2016.).

The grandfather serves as military intelligence trying to hunt down Wernher von Braun in Germany. Von Braun was the brilliant Nazi rocket builder whom the United States later enlisted into its space program. His grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, raised by nuns. Her full story is only alluded to, but her experiences have left her prone to hallucinations and psychotic episodes. She has a mystical persona, unlike the practical grandfather, and entertains her grandson with tarot cards and scary stories.

Chabon writes lyrically and captures the essence of war. But the book is not without humor. While in a retirement community at the end of his life, Michael’s grandfather goes on a Quixotic quest for a pet-eating python. He does this with the same zeal and planning he used when hunting Nazi rocket scientists. The scenes reveal as much about the grandfather’s sense of honor as they do about the struggle for meaning in old age.

Sara Picks  Historical Fiction  Historical  Family Drama  Contemporary  21st Century


Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

JSFoerAquiFoer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as well as Everything is Illuminated, again has written an edgy, thought-provoking book. Here I Am explores identity –as a writer, a father, a husband, and an American Jew—in a profoundly personal way.

The title forms a major theme that permeates every character’s life. In Genesis, Abraham is called upon by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. When God calls Abraham, he answers, “Here I am.” Similarly, when an angel calls to Abraham as he is about to put the knife to his son’s neck, he responds, “Here I am.” Those words, Hineni in Hebrew, are uttered by a man fully present to God and to the angel. Abraham is everything that the narrator, Jacob, is not.

Jacob is a nebbish who, to escape unpleasantness, listens to NPR science podcasts. He is a financially successful writer of an HBO program. He believes he has squandered his talents and secretly crafts a program about his multi-generational family. He hides this project in a drawer. Worse, still, is something else he writes. Hidden in another drawer is a phone with sexts to a colleague. These sexts are cleverly scattered throughout the first part of the book and seem to appear out of nowhere. Julia, his wife of 15 years, discovers the phone and their marriage unravels. The book is the story of that unraveling.

Juxtaposed against this family drama is a crisis in Israel—one of such magnitude that its very existence is threatened. A terrible earthquake has struck the region. The prime minister has asked that Jews throughout the Diaspora come to Israel to help. Jacob decides to go, despite Julia’s objections, further straining their relationship.

Sara Picks  Jewish Literature  Family Drama  Contemporary


Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Crucet

CrucetLizet Ramirez, the narrator of the novel Make Your Home Among Strangers, details her life during a year of emotional and physical changes for herself and for her family.

Lizet applies secretly to an elite northern school, is accepted, and decides to attend despite the wishes of her family. She enjoys so many of her college experiences - new friends, her first snow, and, eventually, some success in her studies. Lizet (“Liz” to her fellow college students, “El” to her Cuban friends) is the first member of her family to go to college, and she is fortunate to have a scholarship and work-study assistance. However, she does have difficulties with workload and cultural change.

In Miami, Lizet’s Cuban-American family struggles with changes in their lives. Her parents’ divorce, and her mother moves from Hialeah to Little Havana in Miami with Lizet’s older sister, Leidy, who is a young single mother with a new baby. Lizet’s father remains in Hialeah, estranged from the family and struggling financially. Lizet’s mother becomes involved, emotionally and then as a leader, in Madres Para Justicia, a group formed to prevent the deportation of Ariel Hernandez. Ariel is a young boy from Cuba whose mother died fleeing on a raft with him and whose father, still in Cuba, wants him back.

The book focuses on the struggles, worries, and guilt resulting from clashes of cultural and family relationships.  It also details the everyday life of Miami’s Cuban-American community and college life in a small town in upstate New York. Well-written dialogue, as well as realistic characters living through very human situations, make the story hard to put down.

Literary Fiction  Gail's Picks  Family Drama  Cultural Fiction  Contemporary  Coming of Age


Eli Gottlieb's Best Boy

GottliebI have read so many reviews of current and upcoming fiction, about children on the autism spectrum. Best Boy offers a different perspective. The main character, Todd Aaron, is in his 50’s. He was placed in a therapeutic residential setting when he was 11, long before autism was understood, or diagnosed. Todd is a likeable, curious autodidact who consults Mr. B. (the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he reads endlessly) or Mr. C (the computer he turns to when Mr. B. doesn’t have the answer).

Thanks to a regimen of medication (that leaves him feeling “dull”) and supportive staff members at his residential facility, Todd functions well in his world. He has earned the fond title of “the Old Man” of his community, and he is selected to serve as an Ambassador who welcomes visitors and new residents. All is well until a new staff member starts working at the Payton Living Center. This new hire reminds Todd of his abusive father. Family secrets rise to the surface, and it is revealed that Todd has one remaining brother who calls but rarely visits. Todd’s fondest wish is to go home – if not to the house he grew up in, then to the home of his brother and wife and their children. Unfortunately, “an incident” some years past prevents his brother’s family from opening their arms to him. The author skillfully metes out small pieces of Todd’s backstory, which makes us appreciate Todd and his situation more and more as the book goes on.

This novel has been selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times, a notable book by The Washington Post, and one of the Top 10 Books of 2015 by Library Journal. Originally published last year in hardcover, Best Boy is now available in paperback.

In an interview, author Gottlieb says that this story is informed by years of visiting his own special needs brother in various residential treatment facilities. The author has recently become his brother’s legal guardian.

Nancy's Picks  Family Drama  Contemporary Fiction


Ann Patchett's Commonwealth

PatchettCommonAnn Patchett, award winning author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, has written a fabulous new book, Commonwealth, that’s due out in mid-September. I couldn’t put down the advanced copy I received!

Patchett’s latest work is a captivating family saga that spans five decades. The story begins when Bert Cousins walks into a christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s second daughter, Franny. Bert enters carrying a large bottle of gin, and several gin and tonics later, he finds himself kissing the hostess. And soon courting her. Two messy divorces later, he marries her. Between them they have six children, and theirs is the story that carries the book. All six spend the summers together in the Commonwealth of Virginia, largely unsupervised. Much of their fun is innocent, but some of it turns deadly, leaving repercussions that will reverberate through the family for decades.

Years later, Franny, a waitress and law school dropout, falls in love with a much older man, author Leon Posen. Following the publication of several of his successful books, he has hit a severe case of writer’s block. Then Franny tells him the story or her torn apart and blended family. His next book, Commonwealth, is a huge success! He credits Franny as his muse, his inspiration. She is horrified that Commonwealth is a thinly veiled accounting of her childhood. Suddenly siblings and step siblings she hasn’t heard from in years are finding her, furious, demanding to know why she would air their dirty laundry in public.

Patchett’s storytelling is at its finest in this book. She has written a complex and realistic family saga that keeps the reader turning the pages, eager to see how the next relationship or drama will manifest itself. The subject matter is said to be drawn from the author’s past. Whether or not that is true, she writes compellingly realistic and fascinating characters.

Southern Literature  Nancy's Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary  American Fiction


Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World by Susan Silverman

SilvermanI first heard of this book when listening to Terry Gross interview its author, Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of comedian Sarah Silverman.

The writer was only two years old when her infant brother, Jeffrey, died in a crib accident while her parents were away on vacation. Their marriage was never the same after that, marred by constant arguments and eventual divorce. Growing up, Susan suffered from such horrible separation that even going to school was pure agony. She still imagines the worst disasters when family members are delayed and fail to call. “Therapy and Zoloft have helped her life immensely,” she wryly comments in one of her many interviews.

In college, at Boston University, she met Yosef Abramowitz at an anti-Apartheid rally. He was a devout Jew and fervent activist for social justice. Susan was instantly smitten. The book is a moving depiction of Susan’s journey from anxiety-ridden child of liberal, atheist parents through her decision to go to seminary in Israel to be near her beloved and to learn about Judaism. Finally, it is the story of their marriage, the birth of their children, and Susan’s life-long yearning to adopt children from abroad.

Casting Lots is remarkable in terms of its heartfelt prose, its humor, and its realistic portrayal of marriage and family. The spirituality and love she shares with her husband allow them to lead a life filled with loving-kindness. “We are all broken,” she writes. But if we are a little lucky, and very willing to learn how, our shards and pieces can form mosaics of love and relationship—unwieldy, vibrant, and cracked as they must be” (Casting Lots, p. 97). Indeed, both she and Yosef quietly fulfill the Talmudic edict, “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”

Sara's Picks  Religion  Memoirs  Jewish Literature  Family Drama  Biographies  Adoption


Jane Hamilton's The Excellent Lombards

HamiltonThe Excellent Lombards, by Jane Hamilton, is a poignant coming of age novel that accurately captures the angst of childhood and adolescence growing up on a 21st century family farm. The novel is told in first person narrative through the eyes of Mary Frances (Frankie) from around age 6 to 16.

The first chapter opens with a scene of haymaking just before a storm touches down on the field. Frankie’s father ignores the angry clouds and ominous signs and works like a man of 20, despite his 50+ years. He is akin to a mythological hero defeating the forces of nature. Later that day at dinner, Frankie remarks on her older brother’s skepticism during the adrenaline-filled adventure:

“You know you believe it,” I beamed to him across the platter of corn. “You know you believe the one pure thing!” …But that night of the hay baling he was reminded of the truth. He knew what we’d always known, that our father could outwit a storm. It was so. It had happened. He knew there was no point, not in anything, if our father wasn’t on hand, quieting the wind; and no point either, if we weren’t there to see it.

Set in Wisconsin, where the author lives on an apple orchard, The Excellent Lombards is a moving depiction of an extended family living on hundreds of acres of land owned by that family for four generations. But bad feelings between the brothers (Frankie’s father and uncle), as well as financial burdens and suburbanization, threaten to put an end to her hopes of inheriting the land.

Sara's Picks  Literary Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary  Coming of Age


Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman

FishmanIn his latest novel, Fishman (A Replacement Life, 2014), once again delves into the problems inherent in acculturation, and he also examines the relationship of marriage.

Alex and Maya, originally from Belarus and Ukraine, respectively, meet in the States as her visa was about to expire. They marry and settle in New Jersey. Maya’s dream is to open a Russian-themed café; Alex’s goal is to explore new professional realms. Neither partner’s objective is fulfilled. Maya becomes a mammography technician, and Alex works at his father’s business. Alex’s parents loom large in the couple’s life. They abhor the idea of her son and his wife adopting after Maya is unable to become pregnant. To complicate matters further, Max, the child they adopt, comes from the most foreign of places—Montana.

Although he is an easy child, Max starts acting strangely at age 8. He has only one friend, collects and labels different grasses, and communes with deer. The family, all city dwellers, is horrified. Seeking answers to this odd behavior, Maya insists they take a cross-country road trip in search of the boy’s birth parents. As O Magazine’s book editor Dotun Akintoye writes in his review:

The quest to find out what’s wrong with Max is slowly revealed to be Maya’s journey to find out what’s wrong with her—why she can’t shake the feeling of being an outsider, why she feels stultified by the man she loves. Every step Maya takes to obtain answers about Max becomes an act of self-discovery. It is Maya who blooms like a wildflower ‘enlarged by the landscape.’

Travel  Sara's Picks  Relationships  Family Drama  Cross-Country Travel  Contemporary


The Turner House

turner houseThe Turner House is a first novel, an amazing and beautiful book full of both details and ideas.  While we may not have experienced the specifics of the lives of the 13 Turner children and their parents, lives detailed with clarity in the novel, we understand all through Flournoy’s exceptional telling of their story.  Showing sensitivity and understanding, Flournoy writes characters who experience a range of situations – growing up in a large family in Detroit; working (as housecleaners, factory workers, truck drivers, police officers, medical professionals); migration to the north; poverty; unemployment;, homelessness; addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling; and, primarily, emblematic of all that the family experiences, trying to save the family home that is crumbling in a decaying neighborhood.

One of the central themes is a haint, a ghost that appears to the eldest child, Cha-Cha, and to others in the family.  Another theme is the city of Detroit, history and present day, described accurately and with compassion.  To quote from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, “That Flournoy’s main characters are black is central to this book, and yet her treatment of that essential fact is never essentializing.”

Most of us will know the joys and the distress that the Turners find in life, through circumstance, and also through family and friends.  To quote from the final pages of the book, the thoughts of Viola, mother of the 13: “The love pivoted between hard and unwieldy and tender and sincere….She would be gracious.  She would talk about strength and pride.  She would tell a little joke.  They would all feel loved.”


Turner House  Literature  Historical Fiction  Gail's Picks  Family Drama  Contemporary  African American Literature