Hispanic Heritage Month

HHMO_Theme_2018_WEBToday marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, reminding me of Latino authors I have enjoyed and others on my list, including Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Isabel Allende and Sandra Cisneros.  Here are a few of my favorite titles:

  1. Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter – click here for my review
  2. Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street
  3. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prisoner of Heaven – click her for my review 

 

And On My To-Read Pile:

9780385542722Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

 

“Set in ’90s Colombia, Fruit of the Drunken Tree examines the terror inflicted on the South American country by Pablo Escobar from two young girls coming of age.”

 

9781474606189The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Zafón follows 2012’s The Prisoner of Heaven with the conclusion to his Cemetery of Forgotten Books quartet, a gripping and moving thriller set in Franco’s Spain.”  

What are your favorites?

 

 

 

 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – The Dinner List

9781250295187   What five people, dead or alive, would you invite for dinner and conversation? Often asked of authors interviewed for the New York Times Book Review, I agree with Kate Atkinson – no writers. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand…and she shows up as one of the guests at a birthday dinner in Rebecca Serle’s The Dinner List.  

Although I expected a fluffy and perhaps happy piece of fiction (maybe it was the bright yellow cover), Sabrina’s love story is bittersweet and introspective.   Chapters alternate between Sabrina’s first person narrative of her relationship with Tobias and the dinner party with her wish list attendees.  Her father, Robert, is among them, as is her best friend Jessica, who periodically excuses herself to pump her leaking breasts.  Sabrina’s college philosophy professor, Conrad, offers literary allusions to the conversation.  Of course, Tobias, the boyfriend, is there, but the star of the evening is Audrey Hepburn.  Sabrina’s name is no accident; her parents were engaged after watching the movie, and Roman Holiday is Sabrina’s favorite film.

I usually prefer to create my own images of characters in a book, and the movie versions usually disappoint me with their choices of actors playing the roles, but the presence of Audrey Hepburn (coincidentally one of my favorites too) lent an exotic note to the narrative.  It was easy to hear her whispery notes when she sang Moon River to the group, and her graceful lithe movements as she lit a cigarette or motioned for more wine were easy to imagine. Serle is careful to include background notes of Hepburn’s childhood during the war and her post-acting humanitarian work with UNESCO, humanizing Hepburn as more than the actress who played Eliza Doolittle.  She becomes the voice of reason and a much needed maternal force for the overwrought Sabby.

The chapters describing the messy relationship between Sabby and Tobias, the conscientious girl with the wild artistic boy, seem to follow a formula, but as the dinner party conversation escalates into the reasons behind why the guests have been chosen, the story shifts and offers some surprises, including who is alive or dead.  Serle offers unlikely hope at times for a change in the universe, but the reader cannot suspend belief that far, and Audrey pulls us back to reality.  In the end, peace and love prevail, and the dinner ends with the guests leaving and Sabrina facing her life as it is.

The story reminded me of a movie spun out of romance and denial, but the premise of the dinner party gave it just the right twist to keep me wanting to find out how it would end at midnight.   I was sorry when it was over.

Who would I invite to a dinner party?  I have no idea, but I like Sabrina’s idea of going to a fancy restaurant instead of cooking, and like Sabrina, maybe I’d learn something more about those who attended.  How about you?

It’s Never Too Late to “Meet Me at the Museum”

1250295165.01._SX142_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_  Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum focuses on second chances in life and love, but shifting gears into this slow-paced epistolary novel fired up my unexpected interest in anthropology and had me looking for more information.  The Tollund man, a perfectly preserved prehistoric man found in the Danish bog, now on display at the Silkeborge Museum in Denmark, is the motivation behind a chain of letters between an unhappy older woman dissatisfied with her life on the farm, and a lonely museum curator who has recently lost his wife.  Tina Hopgood initiates the letters with an inquiry about the Tollund man, and Anders Larson, the museum curator responds,  with a short lecture on the exhibit and an invitation to visit.  

After 40 years as a farm wife, Tina is regretting she never visited the museum but also wonders about other options in her life she never had the chance to consider. Recently widowed Anders works at Denmark’s Silkeborge Museum, which houses Tollund Man, and is finding himself unable to move on after the death of his wife.  Gradually, over eighteen months of writing, their salutations progress from “Dear Mrs. Hopgood” and “Best Wishes” to “My dear Tina” and finally to  “All my love.” 

As the letters become more personal, they disclose their struggles and give each other advice.  Both have grown daughters who are about to make major changes in their lives, and both are wondering if their lives have had any meaning.  Throughout the story, Youngson interjects long descriptions of farm life from Tina and details of the Tollund Man from Anders.  Tina’s letters are filled with the monotony of tending chickens and slaughtering pigs.  She describes picking raspberries, noting that no matter how careful she is, she always finds some she’s missed, comparing her life to a missed row of raspberries. As their letters eventually merge into philosophical observations from both correspondents and the realization of their new-found connection, raspberries become their private reference for second chances, with Anders noting “I feel I have overlooked far too many of the fruits in this life I have.”

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us…Please do not be angry with the circumstances of your life … nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered.”

Youngson may be her own inspiration for the story.  As an Oxfordshire farm wife who always wanted to write a novel, she finally did write this debut novel in her sixties, and is now pursuing a Ph.D.  It’s never too late.

UnknownAs for Tallund Man, here’s what I discovered – click here for more information

 

Other Epistolary Novels I’ve Enjoyed:

  • Daddy Long Legs
  • 84 Charing Place
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • The Divorce Papers
  • Dear Committee Members

New Literary Gems Under 200 Pages

thumbnail_IMG_4482    A quick read is usually a mystery thriller I cannot put down, but I recently found a few books not in that genre but just as intense, and under two hundred pages.  I wished they had gone on for more.  They are so small and compact, I thought of saving them for my next long flight, but like chocolate, I couldn’t resist.

Have you read anything short and sweet lately?

My Twenty-Five Years in Provence by Peter Mayle

imagesAt only 179 pages, Mayle’s book was long enough to remind me of one of favorite vacations in Provence a few years ago.  I still have some thyme weighed out for me at the farmer’s market, but I am running out – time to go back for more. Mayle’s travel musings have his usual rambling flair in this posthumous “reflections of then and now.”  A joy to read and reread, this 25-year retrospective includes the amazing croissants and wines in cozy cafes (you can almost taste them), and the wonder of the beautiful landscape in the Luberon region.  He includes some bumps along the way to tranquility, but I agree with Mayle’s philosophy; ““Memory is at its best when it’s selective, when we have edited out the dull, the disappointing and the disagreeable until we are left with rose-colored perfection.”

Harbor Me by Jacquelyn Woodson

Honored with many awards, including the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson’s new book for middle school age children – Harbor Me – has a message for adults in its 176 pages.

When the teacher assigns four boys and two girls to meet every Friday in the old art room they rename the ARTT (A Room To Talk room), with no adults to listen in, they share their problems and discover together they have the strength to face them. The issues are timely: Esteban’s father’s deportation after being taken from work at a local factory to Haley’s father’s incarceration and her struggle with her own bi-racial identity, and Amari’s fears of racial profiling. When the six are together, they can express the feelings and fears they hide from the rest of the world and find a safe harbor.

His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Kate Walbert’s 149 pages in His Favorites build into the #MeToo story of a vulnerable fifteen year old girl at a prestigious private boarding school.  The story starts with the death of a teenage girl from a drunken joyride in a golf cart.  As the driver,  Jo’s guilt drives her to acquiesce to her thirty-four year old Advanced Lit class teacher’s sexual advances, until she finally decides to go to the headmaster for help. The administrator’s reaction is predictable. Walbert clearly points to all the adults who have abandoned Jo, including her parents, as she navigates a painful journey that never ends:

“From here there is never … a day without Master’s shadow across my life — a solid bar, a locked turnstile that brings me up short, trapped on the other side of where I thought I was going, the place I once imagined I would be.”

A story with a short but powerful and painful  statement…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

UnknownDorthe Nors 192 pages had me remembering when I learned to drive; I was sixteen and taught by my patient father, but Nors’ heroine, Sonja,  is over forty trying to learn how to drive a stick shift in a driving school with an impatient young instructor.  Written as a stream of consciousness dialogue with herself, the story allows the reader into Sonja’s anxiety-driven “monkey mind” as she jumps into tangent topics, often daydreaming while she is having a driving lesson.

Nors’ book is translated from Danish with obscure references to the landscape; coincidentally, Sonja is a translator of gory Swedish crime novels. It took awhile to get into the rhythm of the story, maybe because of the translation, but when Sonya drops out in the middle of a hike with a group of women to find a bakery with “thick slices of cake,” I suddenly liked her.

The book may be short but it is packed with dark humor and introspective notes, and double entendre on living life alone, as Sonja watches out for her blind spots:

“I’m a woman past forty.  Alone… Barefoot and besides, I can’t shift gears.”

lightning-bolt-clipart-lightning-bolt-hiMore Short Books to Look For:

  • Coming later in September – Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini 

In 48 pages in a letter from father to son. the author of The Kite Runner commemorates the second anniversary of the death of the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy who drowned while attempting to reach Greece.

  • In January, 2019 – Ghost Wall by Kate Moss – 144 pages

“…A gothic tale of bullying and bog people…”

Summer Romance

Summer is officially over, but the summer heat lingers.  Have you read anything steamy lately?

Here is my hot pick for historical romance:

bellewether-9781501116544_lg   Bellewether

Fans of Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander will relish Susanna Kearsley’s Bellewether, complete with romance, historical references, and a time-traveling ghost.

As Charley, the new curator of the Wilde House museum on Long Island, explores the history of the old house, her search parallels the world of the original 1750s family.  Kearsely alternates chapters in the voices of the men and women of the past with Charley and their modern day contemporaries.  The developing romance between Charley and Sam, the handsome contractor who is helping repair and restore the old house, mirrors the eighteenth century relationship of Lydia, twenty year old daughter of the house and Jean-Philippe, the French Canadian lieutenant staying in their house.

The story is slow-moving, bur offers glimpses into the lives of men and women living through one of the most comprehensive wars of the century.  Known as the French and Indian War in the American colonies, the Seven Years War ended with The Treaty of Paris transferring Canada from France to England, switching loyalties forever.  Kearsley also chronicle’s The Acadian Expulsion and its effect on families.

Prisoners during the French and Indian War were sometimes left in the homes of area farmers loyal to the British king under a gentleman’s agreement to do no harm and not try to escape.  Although he speaks no English, Jean Philippe volunteers to help Lydia’s father around the farm.  In the museum house’s legend, Lydia’s brother, Joseph, killed Jean Philippe to stop him from marrying Lydia.  In modern times, Charley is being helped by a mysterious ghost, possibly one of the colonial lovers, as she uncovers clues to the past.  In the end, the true history is revealed, conveniently creating a happily ever after ending for all.

More Historical Romances:

51qskWl-U4L._SY346_ Reading now on my iPhone: The Lost Vintage by Anne Mah

“A woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy to study for her Master of Wine test, uncovers a lost diary, a forgotten relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II.

51Idch895UL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  Listening to: The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall

“A dual-timeline narrative featuring a 1949 Miss Subways contestant and a modern-day advertising executive whose careers and lives intersect.”

9781524742959_p0_v2_s192x300-1  On the Wait List at the library: The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

“The glamorous lost art school within Grand Central Terminal, where two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.”