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.

Saints for All Occasions

9780307959577_p0_v6_s192x300  J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions features two Irish sisters immigrated from Ireland.  One joins a cloistered convent; the other marries and raises the nun’s out-of-wedlock son.  Although their lives seem predictable, Sullivan uses their strict upbringing and their personal struggles to create a family saga across generations.

The story begins with the death of Patrick, eldest son, but his place within the family is quickly absorbed into the estranged relationship of the two sisters. As the story moves between the present and the past, Sullivan follows the sisters as they travel by ship to their new world, and teases the reader with their future lives.  Despite the long descriptions and the choppy dialogue, I kept reading to find out how their lives developed.  How did Theresa become a nun?  How did she get to Vermont? How did Nora have so many children when she had not consummated her marriage after two years?  Sullivan posing possibilities by her glimpses into their future, constantly opening new doors for her characters.

The title refers to a collection of holy cards Nora has kept in a box.  I remember my grandmother’s – bespoke cards for specific requests with the saint’s picture on one side and the prayer of entreaty on the other.  Some have entered popular culture – pray to St. Jude for the impossible or St. Anthony for lost items, but St. Monica as the patron saint for mothers of difficult children was new to me. The cards also include commemorations of the dead, usually distributed at a funeral. I have a stack of those bequeathed to me – some of relatives I barely remember.

For those of us who grew up in the Catholic religion of old and watched as it morphed into modernity, then was crippled by the exposure of priests’ crimes, Sullivan’s references will make a connection.  As the book ended, I wanted more  and realized I had become immersed in the characters’ lives.

Related Review: Maine

Vanessa and Her Sister

9780804176378_p0_v3_s260x420-1If you ever wondered just how miserable Virginia Woolf had to be to drown herself in  the River Ouse by walking into the water after filling her overcoat pockets with stones, Priya Parmar reveals the quirky personality behind the disturbed genius as she examines the lives of sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Vanessa and Her Sister The timeline covers their young adult lives at Bloomsbury – before either had achieved fame through literature or art, and ends as Virginia Stephen marries Leonard Woolf.

NPR neatly summarizes the book:

“In the winter of 1905, in the London neighborhood of Bloomsbury, a group of friends began meeting for drinks and conversation that lasted late into the night. The friends – writers like Lytton Strachey, artists like Roger Fry and thinkers like economist John Maynard Keynes — continued to meet almost weekly for many years. Eventually, they came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group.

In the beginning, their clubhouse was the home of the Stephen siblings — two brothers and two sisters. Today, the women are better remembered than their brothers: They were the painter Vanessa Bell and the writer Virginia Woolf.

Priya Parmar has written a novel about the group, and especially about the Stephen women. It’s called Vanessa and Her Sister and it’s written in the form of Bell’s journal. Parmar tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer that she chose to put Bell at the center of her novel because, compared to her sister, her voice has been largely unheard.”

 

The sisters live with their brothers after the death of their parents, and through the weekly salon, the reader meets their friends, future husbands and a circle of recognizable literary luminaries – E.M. Forster, Rupert Brooke, Walter Lamb, and others.  Famous artists – Monet, Manet, Picasso, and others float through the periphery of the story, as Vanessa Stephen, an artist in her own right, marries Clive Bell, the art critic and author, who organized the landmark second Post-Impressionist exhibition that was held in London in 1912. Through a series of letters, and diary notes, Parma weaves a tale of sisterly love and sibling rivalry, telling the background story of the famous sisters and creating a fictional conversation based on historical fact.

If you are a fan of embellished historical fiction in the tone of “The Girl with a Pearl Earring,” you might enjoy the book, but beware – Parmar’s unique writing style might be a distraction.  Not quite an epistolary, the story uses Vanessa’s diary posts (Vanessa never actually kept a diary), letters between the authors and friends, as well as letters between Vanessa and her sister Virginia.  At times, the jumps from intimate thoughts from the journal to letters from assorted characters can be disarming.  You will need to concentrate on who is talking.

Although I have read Woolf’s writing and knew of her background, Parmar’s creation through the eyes of Woolf’s sister was enlightening.  Despite Virginia’s overbearing proclamations of the value of writing over art, Vanessa rallied on with her painting and eventually became renowned in the art world.  Although some of her paintings were destroyed in a fire, many remain on display.  Her son, Julian Bell, has carried on the tradition of writing and painting.  Parmar touches on the birth of Julian and the sham of Vanessa’s marriage, but her affair with Roger Fry and his influence on her work will have to wait for another novel.

Leonard Woolf appears as Virginia’s suitor through letters to a mutual acquaintance, Lytton Strachey. Their married life together, his subsequent influence and care of her delicate nature, as well as their founding of the Hogarth Press – which published most of Virginia’s novels – is well documented in Victoria Glendenning’s 2006 biography – Leonard Woolf – a book I now have on my list to read.  Parmar only briefly mentions Leonard, and left me wanting more.  As Virginia’s erratic behavior leads to her brief institutionalization, I wondered how he could continue to pursue her…but there is more to that story.

The sibling rivalry and forbearance of Vanessa toward her talented sister form the crux of this novel, and Parmar does highlight the “unheard” sister by speaking through the voice of Vanessa Stephen Bell.  By using primary sources and then fictionalizing Vanessa’s life, Parmar may have filled the gap for more information with a psuedo biography on the Vanessa with the famous sister.