Tag Archives: relationships

News of the World

9780062409201_p0_v5_s192x300 What a ride – with a seventy-one year old and a ten year old on the road together in Texas soon after the Civil War.  Paulette Jiles’ short book – News of the World – has the fast paced adventure of an old Western.

When Captain Kidd agrees to deliver a young blond girl back to her German family in San Antonio, he creates an unlikely partnership.  Captured by the Kiowa tribe when she was six years old, the girl only knows the ways of her adopted family. She speaks no English and bridles at the uncomfortable clothes she is forced to wear.  Captain Kidd, a seasoned army sergeant and former printer, works like Mark Twain on the road,  reading newspaper stories on stage to the interested and illiterate, as he tries to make money in his retirement.

Although the girl, named Johanna by the Captain, is wary and angry, her intelligence and skills in tribal warfare help the Captain overcome their first adversaries, men from another tribe intent on capturing and selling her into child prostitution (“blond girls are premium”).  As they continue their journey, Johanna and Kidd bond, with her calling him Grandpa and he protecting and teaching her through a series of adventures – some humorous, some frightening.

The plot line is direct and Jiles provides a satisfying ending, but Jiles’ vivid descriptions are the real story.  Her historical notes of the unrest and hardships after the Civil War immerse the reader into another time – the wild West just as it is beginning to develop.  Through the relationship between the Captain and the girl, the author cleverly reveals their two disparate  backgrounds, while maintaining the common denominators of human kindness and priorities for values worth having.

I came across Jiles’ book just as I finished reading the first book of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.  The densely packed Justine had left me wanting a story more readable and with a less cynical view; News of the World delivered.  Jiles’ book is short and focused, and redeemed my notion of books delivering  an escape and possibly some wisdom.  One of the phrases I will remember:

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we  are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

The News of the World was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

9781594203985_p0_v4_s192x300 Although Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two London friends – girls from the hood who grow up together, one with talent, the other with ambition – Guardian reviewer Taiye Selasi  clearly identified Smith’s theme but it’s taking me awhile to digest it:

“Our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs. That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”

Tracey, with an absent father and an angry mother, is the talented dancer and rebel. “She wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs.” The unnamed narrator is the good girl, who goes to college and eventually gets a job with Aimee, the celebrity stereotype.

I am still reading – about halfway through.  Smith uses the current popular writing style of alternating chapters from present to past, with the foundation of the girls’ lives offering rationale for their decisions later in life. I am finding the past more palatable and I like to linger over the stories of the best friends’ younger selves.  The chapters detailing Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country have been wearing.

This is probably a book I should have consumed in one swallow, but the holidays with time-consuming rituals distracted me.  The initial references to Fred Astaire movies and dance routines (hence the title) were also appropriate for the swinging back and forth in the girls’ lives but can make following the story difficult, and the narrator’s angst a little too heavy.

To help get me on track, I found the New York Times review by Holly Bass

Zadie’s Smith New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame, and Friendship

On the other hand, maybe I’ve read enough…

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

9781476799209_p0_v3_s192x300 Alice Hoffman always manages to instill some magic into her narrative, and a little appears in Faithful, but more believable than some of her other stories like Practical Magic or Nightbird – yet just as captivating.

Hoffman weaves the story around a mother-daughter relationship after a devastating car accident.  Seventeen year old Shelby Richmond was driving when the car crashed; she survived but her best friend, Helene, became a vegetable and the town saint.  As Helene lies comatose in her parents’ living room, amazing miracles seem to happen to some who make the pilgrimage to her bedside – scars disappear, diseases are cured, roses bloom in February on the anniversaries of the crash.  Shelby, on the other hand, shaves her head, cuts her self, becomes a drug addict, and hides in her parents’ basement – in shame and guilt at having survived.  The reader follows her journey to redemption as Hoffman takes Shelby from antisocial misery to working in a pet store and eventually to veterinary school.

Along the way, Shelby has help growing up and realizing how to live her second chance at life.  Mysterious postcards appear intermittently in the story, and solving the mystery of the sender becomes a catalyst to reading on.  When the “angel” is revealed, the story satisfyingly provides closure in a number of ways – to tell too much would spoil the reading.

great_pyrenees_tavish Despite her rocky relationship with her mother and her subsequent connections with men, it’s the dogs in Shelby’s life who are the true saviors.  She rescues abused homeless dogs, taking them to live with her in her three hundred foot studio apartment.  Their personalties reflect Shelby’s needs – from the French bull dog, who always leads the way, to the one-eyed small dog who needs carrying, and the gentle guardian, the white Great Pyrenees.  Eventually, her mother’s toy poodle becomes part of the brood.  Dog lovers will readily identify with the value of Shelby’s canine friends.

Alice Hoffman’s stories always catch me unaware – before I know it I am deep in the story and cannot let go.  Although the story begins on a depressing note, Hoffman quickly escalates to her real message, and the dogs in this story were an added bonus.

Reviews of Other Alice Hoffman Books:

Jojo Moyes – the Modern O. Henry

9780735221079_p0_v6_s192x300 While reading Jojo Moyes Paris for One and Other Stories, I could not help thinking of William Sidney Porter’s short stories.  Better know as O. Henry, Porter’s romantic tales always ended with a surprise, whether in the selfless romance of The Gift of the Magi or in the story of a sick woman hanging on with The Last Leaf.  In this collection, Moyes offers her wry outlook and, like O.Henry, ends each with a jolt.

The title story, “Paris for One,” is the longest – all 150 pages – and could easily be an hour long Christmas special.  When Nell’s boyfriend is not at the London station, she gets on the train anyway, hoping he is just late for their romantic weekend in Paris. Feeling alone in a strange city, Nell receives his message that he is not coming and decides to return to London. In a series of serendipitous occurrences, the story evolves into Nell’s emergence as a determined woman who finds true love in Paris.  Only Moyes could transform a melodramatic interlude into a funny and heart-warming story, leaving the reader satisfied and smiling at the ending.

The “Other Stories” include brief tales, peeking into the windows of familiar lives: the has-been actor who is being tortured with racy tweets, the frumpy mother who finds a pair of expensive shoes that change her outlook, the taxi driver who gives a harried woman the courage to live her own life, the jewelry store clerk who saves a burglar, the husband who buys his wife a coat they cannot afford, the couple who find their afternoon delight again after years of marriage, the woman who meets her old lover at a party, and the secret communication of a woman with a stranger’s phone.

If you enjoyed Moyes’ novels (see my reviews below), you will be delighted with this collection.  Not all the stories have happy endings but each has the author’s trademark wit and charm.

Reviews of Other Moyes Books:

 

Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night

9781609453701_p0_v1_s192x300  Elena Ferrante’s children’s book The Beach at Night has magic, danger, and adventure, with scary episodes and somewhat raunchy language not usually found in a children’s book. Never fear, the story does have a happy ending.  Best known for her anonymity and her Neopolitan novel series, Ferrante weaves a simple but dark story, reminiscent of the original Grimm fairy tales, about a doll left behind at the beach.

When her father presents the little girl with a cat named Minu, the little doll finds herself abandoned and forgotten.  She is tortured by a mean beach attendant and his rake as they scavenge the night beach for bits of treasure left behind.  Although the main villain is the snarly Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset, the Rake, Fire, and Waves from the Ocean are personified and join in, as the poor doll tries to hang on.

Although the book is listed for children, the illustrations reminded me of Tim Burton caricatures – whimsically scary.  The subtexts of mother-daughter relationships, as well as the horrors of a deserted beach and the stealing of words out one’s mouth, seem targeted more for an adult audience. Adults, especially fans of Ferrante will enjoy the book, but beware – read it yourself first to decide if you want to share it with your young ones.