The Grammarians

Could it be Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren on the cover of Catherine Schine’s new novel about twins with extraordinary linguistic skills? The picture of the two wide-eyed twin girls on the cover could be any set of famous twins, but Daphne and Laurel Wolfe are the stars of  The Grammarians and they share some of the idiosyncracies of the real Pauline Esther and Esther Pauline Lederer (better known as  Ann and Abby) in an entertaining story about sibling rivalry and the power of words. 

The notion of being a twin is not an experience most of us have, but many have smatterings of twin envy. Have you ever wished to trade places with a doppelganger, especially on those days when you would rather be someone else than face the routine of life? Shakespeare did it and so do the Wolfe twins. And wouldn’t it be convenient to have a secret language like twin speak? Even Sally, Daphne and Laurel’s mother, cannot understand their private language. 

Although I suffered through years of diagramming grammar with the good sisters who believed a dangling participle a mortal sin, and later studied linguist Noam Chomsky, I was sometimes intimidated by the twins. Each chapter begins with a word and its obscure dictionary definition; conversations sometimes include outlandish words. Readers could create their own list, just like the twins with words like fugacious, gloze, irenicon, to check them out later in the dictionary – but why bother.

The dictionary – Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition – enters the story early, offering a convenient source of reference as the girls grow, becoming a point of contention when their father dies, and finally bringing the twins back together in the end. This heavy tome placed on its stand, referred to as the “altar,” has all anyone needs to understand the story – “words, words, words, words” and the twins sometimes take it to bed with them.

As adults, the twins branch into different interpretations of language. Daphne becomes a grammar columnist, devoted to preserving the mother language, while Laurel leaves her teaching job to write poetry with hiphop tendencies. Both become well known in language circles, and they argue publicly about who has the correct slant toward words –  suffering a time when they are not talking to each other – not unlike those famous sisters, Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers.

Schine’s story is not just for the “bookish.”  Her observations of family relationships, especially sisterly competition, offer a humorous and sometimes poignant tale.  Luckily, it all turns out well in the end; real sisters are not always so forgiving.  

 

Review of Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport:  https://nochargebookbunch.com/2010/05/11/the-three-weissmanns-of-westport/

 

The Most Fun We Ever Had

Claire Lombardo’s family saga – The Most Fun We Ever Had –  has all the drama of a television series (“This Is Us” comes to mind), as she follows the Sorensons through their lives.  Although Marilyn Connelly and David Sorenson anchor the family with their seemingly perfect married life, and their unlikely unending passion, their dysfunctional daughters command most of the action. Lombardo uses the catalyst of a long lost teenager’s sudden appearance after having been secretly given up at birth for adoption, to explain the family dynamics.

The title is misleading; the story is not the most fun you will ever have, as you follow each character in turmoil, yet it is compelling – and long – over five hundred pages. Marilyn is the stereotypical matriarch who married young and supported her husband through medical school, while having babies and burying her own ambitions, which reappear later. Wendy, the eldest daughter, never quite recovers from having competition in her bright younger sister Violet, born in the same calendar year, followed soon after by Liza.  The youngest, Grace, born later and referred to as the “epilogue” feels left out, despite her parents hovering.  As adults, they morph into a widow; a stay-at-home mom with a law degree; a tenured professor facing parenting alone; and a recent college graduate caught up in an embarrassing lie

Lombardo follows the family through major events but not in order.  She begins the story with the wedding of the eldest, Wendy, and proceeds to explain the cryptic clues she initially drops through flashbacks involving births and deaths, sibling rivalries and secrets, and lots of lies. Sometimes it’s not clear at first who is speaking.

A few surprises kept me reading, wondering if another would appear – it did – and the rivalry between the older daughters could probably have been a book by itself.  The story is absorbing but also exhausting – and maybe just a little too long.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

If you are not hungry for pie and thirsty for beer as you read J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota, you are a better person than I am.  After reading about Edith’s award winning pies, I had to take a break to buy and eat some pie.  The craving for ale, lager. or stout was easy to overcome since the only beer I really like is Guinness and only if I am drinking it in Ireland – something about the water, I think, makes it taste so good there I could have it for breakfast.  Luckily, I don’t get to Ireland often.

Expecting a cozy tale of lovable elderly ladies around the quilting circle, I was pleasantly surprised by Stradal’s complicated family saga and learned more about the making of beer than I can ever use – unless I too get the opportunity to make a chocolate beer in my old age.

Two sisters, Edith, the pie maker, and Helen, the chemist and brewmeister, part ways when their father dies and leaves the farm to Helen.  Without sharing the profits, Helen sells the farm and uses the money to start a brewery.  Throughout the story, Helen is the selfish, smart, money-hungry sister pitted against sweet, calm, pie-making Edith.   Forsaking her ideal of the perfect beer, Helen and her husband make Blotz, a cheap beer appealing to the masses and make a fortune.  Helen, however, does not share her good fortune with her sister.

Left penniless after her husband’s death, Edith works baking pies in a nursing home and as a janitor at a fast food restaurant, raising her teenage granddaughter, Diane, after the fatal crash of Edith’s daughter.  Edith is the good sister, unrewarded with money for all her hard work, but, of course, loved by all.

Despite the stereotypes, the main characters are convincing, but as the tale evolves into desparate times for Edith, a newfound career in brewing for Diane with Edith and her senior friends working at the brewery, and the  evolution of craft beer destroying Helen’s empire, the ending is almost predictable.

I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota in a day, enjoying the possibility of ladies over sixty having a new career in an unlikely business.  Looking for more information on craft beer, I found Williams Sonoma sells a Craft Beer Kit – seems anyone can try making beer.

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 Excellent Lombards

If I hadn’t read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I may have missed Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards. Patchett recommended the book as “the book Hamilton was born to write.” Like Patchett’s Commonwealth, The Excellent Lombards focuses on a family, and has some biographical references from its author. Coincidentally, both books also have a character named Frances.

Since Hamilton tells this coming of age story through the voice of twelve year old Mary Frances Lombard living with her family on a small Wisconsin apple and sheep farm at the end of the twentieth century, the rhythm of the narrative is hard to follow at first. Ownership of the farm lands has been passed down through generations and is now shared by Jim Lombard, Frankie’s father, his cousin Sherwood, and an elderly aunt May Hill. Everyone from old May Hill to the children, Frankie and her brother, William, work the farm, except Nellie, Frankie’s mother who is the town librarian.

Frankie is determined to stay on the farm forever, imagining a long life there with her brother, but the small farm struggle against land development and innovative crops, as well as inner family rivalries, threaten her dream. Change is hard, especially when you don’t want to grow up.

Hamilton, of course, has a message for the reader through tense moments at town hall meetings or around the dinner table, but the novel’s humor, cleverly flowing through Frankie, kept my attention – from her pushing the library carts through the halls in a synchronized dance routine to being locked in the old lady’s bedroom while she was sharpening her spying skills.  Frankie will go to extremes to keep everyone happy, purposely losing the geography bee to her younger lispy cousin to make her feel better.

Hamilton touches on historic moments such as the terrorist attack on the New York City Towers, but only as placements in time. The real terror is the developing history noone can stop. The story ends with Frankie facing her own possibilities, opportunities, and obstacles – some seem inevitable. With grace and wit, Hamilton delivers her perspective on the difficulty of letting go.