Akin by Emma Donoghue

The premise of an old man suddenly finding he has a long lost young relative seems familiar, but Emma Donoghue reframes the possibilities in Akin with a 79 year old retired science professor, seemingly alone in the world, who has decided to revisit his birthplace in France, and an eleven year old street smart boy whose father is dead and mother is in jail. With the backdrop of the French Riviera and Nice, Donoghue weaves a compelling tale of family, friendship, and last chances.

Shortly before he is scheduled to fly to Nice on a nostalgic trip and to celebrate his eightieth birthday, a phone call disrupts Noah’s plans. I had to laugh when Noah assumed the call was a scam, as I would have, but it is really a social worker desperately trying to keep his sister’s grandson from being institutionalized. After a visit to the boy’s mother in jail and an expedited passport, the two are off on an adventure promising to change both lives.

Photography plays an important role in the story.  Noah’s grandfather was a famous artist with several of his pictures hanging in museums, and his mother assisted him before the war, even remaining in France after she shipped her four year old son to America as World War II crept closer to their home in Nice. Rummaging through his dead sister’s belongings, Noah discovers an envelope with photographs of the area during the war.  Determined to discover more about the time and place, he brings them along on the trip, creating a quest for the two as they travel.

I have been to France, especially Paris and Provence, a number of times, but never to Nice, so Donogue’s thorough description of the area, and its place in history, was fascinating. Although the role of the French in the war has been the subject of many books, I had never heard of the Marcel Network of over 500 Jewish children hidden around Nice and given new names and identities to protect them from the Nazis. Donoghue weaves historical facts into the story but she balances the horrors of war with light and endearing scenes of the Carnival, the circus, eating ice cream, great uncle and grand nephew getting to know each other through small pleasures and unlikely commonalities.

Michael is a tech savvy eleven year old, encrusted with the sadness of having lost everyone dear to him – his father died of an overdose, his mother incarcerated for dealing drugs, his beloved grandmother dead.  Donoghue neatly captures his defensive acting out behavior, and softens it with a young person’s reluctant willingness to be awed.  His character is a elegant balance to the old man who is prepared for death at any time, and a filter for Noah’s discoveries.

As Noah connects the photos to actual places, he begins to assume the worst about his mother.  Was she a spy? Worse, was she helping the Germans?  The quest becomes an investigation to absolve or convict his mother.

Although Noah’s longwinded spontaneous lectures get a little tiring, and Michael’s preoccupation with selfies gets a little annoying, the story offers more than a perspective on a strange male bonding. The women in the story evolve from the background to the more important focus.  The ending is predictable but their journey is not.  Donoghue offers much to consider and discuss – what is family anyway?  And what does it take to risk making a commitment?

The Dutch House

My old friend’s younger face stared at me from the cover of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, as I wandered through the airport bookstore.  I had just left her husband’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and the moment of her last goodbye as she bent over the coffin, surrounded by the military color guard, was still with me.  Looking back on his life seemed like a fast forward through time, full of moments of joy and sadness – some only he and my friend shared alone.  Ann Patchett captured this colorama of life as she focused on one family’s life journey in her book, based in a place I grew up – the suburbs of Philadelphia.

I read through The Dutch House from Washington D.C. to Honolulu, never turning on the movie screen in front of me, and time flew by as I did.  I noted Bishop McDevitt High School, where my brother and I cheered the basketball team, Abington Memorial Hospital where my father and brother died, the references to Elkins Park, the neighborhood a cut above it all,  and Jenkintown, with its old library, all within the radius of my childhood home.  I followed Danny and Maeve from childhood to funerals, and gladly immersed myself in a world of characters Patchett created.

If you’ve read Patchett’s books, you know she is all about the characters and the place.  In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Patchett gives her reason for setting the house in the story in Elkins Park:

“I was looking for a tony suburb that was near New York, because New York would definitely play into the story. And I have a very close friend, Erica Buchsbaum Schultz, who is originally from Wyncote {the actual site of Bishop McDevitt High School}.. And when I was in college [at Sarah Lawrence], I would always go to her family’s house for weekends, because I lived too far away [in Nashville]…I like to write in a place that I know, but maybe not too well. I would never set a book in Nashville. If I know a place too well, I get overburdened with details.”

But she got her descriptions right.  I know – I grew up there – and it added to the pleasure of reading the book for me.  There was my friend on the cover and in a place where we both grew up.

The story is unlike anything I knew when I was there, however, and maybe a little fantastic. A mother, overcome with guilt over her husband’s new wealth, cannot accommodate living in a glorious mansion with servants and expensive art, and leaves her three year old son and eleven year old daughter, to go to India to help with the poor.  Danny, the son, is the narrator, as we follow his journey from his life in a glass house to his reunion as an adult with his mother. Martha Southgate for the New York Times calls the story a fairy tale, and it does have the wicked stepmother with her two selfish daughters, and a few fairy godmothers.  Danny is not Cinderella, but he and his sister Maeve, do lose the comforts of wealth when their father dies.  Despite all the obstacles they have to overcome and the suffering they endure, Danny and Maeve thrive, and the wicked stepmother gets her due.

Unlike a fairy tale, Patchett weaves a story about characters you can care about, and offers so much for a discussion – great book for a book club, just like her Commonwealth.

Thank you, Ann Patchett, for delivering a book for publication, and as my friend’s husband would say, your timing for me, “was exactly right.”

The Library Book

shopping  It seemed appropriate to borrow Susan Orlean’s The Library Book from the library, and her affinity with the institution caught me from the first page.  I too remember walking to the library as a young girl, holding my mother’s hand, and gleefully letting go once inside to enjoy the freedom of roaming the stacks of children’s books.  I too remember checking out so many books; we had to balance those slippery covers carefully as we walked home. If those books had disappeared in a fire, I would have been devastated. The Library Book tells the story of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed more than one million books in Los Angeles’ Central Library.

Perhaps the most poignant note in this book had me forgetting I was reading nonfiction:

Orleans says the fire reminded her of the proverb that when a person dies, it’s as if a library has burned to the ground. “A host of memories and stories and anecdotes that we store in our minds disappears when someone dies. It struck me as being a wonderful way of seeing why libraries feel like these big, collective brains — because they have the memories and stories of a whole culture inside them.

Orleans has produced a comprehensive book in her research, documenting what happens behind the scenes in libraries, how the librarians thought about the fire, then morphing into the library today as it adapts to the digital age. She takes the reader inside the stacks, observing and listening to the questions patrons ask and revealing how the library works. When she investigates the life of Harry Peak, the possible perpetrator, she never hopes to solve the mystery of the devastating fire – but you hope she will.

At times, her attempts at solving the mystery of the fire drives the narrative; other times, her observations of librarians and books connect with my curiosity and awe of both.   I read it all carefully and slowly, and it has inspired three resolutions:

  1. To visit the Los Angeles Central Library,
  2. and find its collection of restaurant menus.
  3. To look for the Library’s float in this year’s Rose Bowl Parade.

 

The Frugal Traveler: Rediscovering Travel

9780871408501  Why do you travel? Maybe you want to attain an elusive airline or hotel elite status, want to explore new places before they change irrevocably, or you just don’t like staying home? Seth Kugel, the “Frugal Trsveler” for the New York Times always has a good reason to go and an easy way to enjoy when you get there. His column has inspired me many times, and now he has a book – Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.

Spending hours trying to coordinate a trip to a conference in one city with visiting friends in another, while snagging a good hotel rate, confirming a decent airline seat, looking for the best deals on rental cars, and, of course, coordinating visits to the best bookstores, bakeries, and restaurants (in that order of priority) confirmed that being my own travel agent can be ludicrous, time-consuming, and frustrating.  

When I read the preview for Kugel’s new book:

“Rediscovering Travel explains – often hilariously – how to make the most of new digital technologies without being shackled to them…While recognizing the value of travel apps, he recommends that travelers use them sparingly. Instead of using TripAdvisor to find a predictably pleasant restaurant, for example, he recommends wandering around looking into windows or asking a stranger for advice…”

I knew I had to read this book.

Taking Off

452257583My favorite part of flying is the take-off.  I like to close my eyes as the plane revs up its engines and begins the thrust down the runway.  Against all odds, the tons of metal carrying people in their seats, luggage above their heads and below in the cargo hold, pounds of water and fuel – all miraculously rise into the air.

I always know that moment; I can feel it as the plane rises up off the ground, and nothing during the rest of the flight offers the same exhilaration.   Recently, I zigzagged across the country, wondering if my checked luggage was following my erratic itinerary, but I enjoyed six take-offs in nine days, six ecstatic moments of floating.

As is my practice, I brought old New Yorker magazines to read during my flights – these were dated before the last Presidential election, so I ignored the predictions and focused on the articles.

shopping    Claudia Roth Pierpont’s amazing review The Secret Lives of Leonardo da Vinci convinced me to find Walter Isaacson’s biography Leonardo da Vinci when I landed.  A short piece by Jonathan Franzen – Hard Up in New York – about his life before he was as rich and famous as a writer can be,  inspired me to write this short piece.

When I finish reading, I usually offer the magazines to the flight crew, or drop them in the seatbacks as a surprise for the next traveler.  I’ve been tempted to leave them in the terminal with a code I’ve used for books in Bookcrossing, a website that allows you to assign unique numbers to your books, and use these numbers to track your books as they travel across the globe. I’ve released a few books “into the wild” – in designated public places for others to find.  Let me know if you try it.

And scroll down to see a picture of my travels on Instagram.