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Lillian Boxfish (and what a fabulous name for a character that is!) is the intrepid octogenarian of this smart and insightful novel by Kathleen Rooney. It is New Year's Eve, 1984, and Lillian had got it into her head to trek all over Manhattan. Given her lack of fear at traversing the crime-ridden city, and her charming repartee with everyone she meets, you would think that confidence had never left her. But as she walks and reminisces, we learn the truth: her heartbreak when a betrayal is discovered; how she she had to give up her beloved job as the highest-paid woman ad writer at Macy's when she married; and her disappointment at once being a widely-read poet whose work is now out-of-print. And yet, Lillian is still witty, kind, smart, and able to walk unassisted several miles on a cold December night. We should all be so lucky, at any age but especially at eight-five, to summon some of Lillian's moxie and strength.
Seventeen-year-olf Griffin is overcome with grief. His ex-boyfriend Theo, with whom he had hoped to reunite, has died in a drowning accident, and now they'll never have a chance to get back together. He's alone in his misery, not speaking to his best friend Wade, who had a falling-out with Theo. Now Theo's current boyfriend Jackson, the guy who stole Theo away, wants to be Griffin's friend. If that weren't enough, Griffin's OCD has gone from being a "quirk" to a compulsion that interferes with his daily life. In alternating chapters, flashing back to when Theo was still alive, we see Griffin and Theo fall in love, make each other better people, fight and make up, break up so Theo can be free in college, and try to move on with other people. And we see Griffin, Wade, and Jackson make some fairly poor decisions in their sadness and anger. This book does a beautiful job portraying how all-consuming, exhausting, and lonely grief can be, and how we sometimes turn to unexpected sources of comfort and solace. Highly recommended for older teens, and especially for fans of John Corey Whaley's Highly Illogical Behavior and Patrick Ness' The Rest of Us Just Live Here.
Sixteen-year-old Vic Benucci suffers from a condition called Moebius syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes facial paralysis, which means he cannot blink, smile or frown. Bullied by his classmates and often assumed to be stupid by adults, he is actually witty and intelligent, a lover of art and opera, which becomes clear when he opens his mouth and speaks. What Vic's face cannot show, but he needs to say is that he still grieves for his father, dead more than two years ago from cancer, while his mother seems to have moved on with a boyfriend who loves canned green beans. He runs away on a quest to scatter his father's ashes, and bumps into a ragtag group of homeless kids and young adults who have named themselves Kids of Appetite: Baz and Nzuzi, brothers who survived a civil war in the Congo; Madeline (Mad), whose parents were killed in a car wreck; and Coco, 11 years old, a cussing Little Orphan Annie down to the red hair. They take Vic in, feed and shelter him, treat him with kindness, just because he asks for help. When the book begins, it is eight days since Vic left home, and he and Mad are being interviewed by the police as witnesses to a murder for which Baz is the prime suspect. As they recount the events of the previous week, it becomes clear that all the Kids of Appetite have sorrows to tell at least as great as Vic's. This is an amazing second novel by David Arnold-- a book about accepting loss, finding family, finding love, and discovering that we are all Chapters in each other's stories.
Seventeen-year-old Katie always does what she is supposed to do. She does well in school, helps care for her mentally handicapped brother, and obeys her strict mother, Caroline, without question. Then a grandmother, Mary, she never knew appears, suffering from dementia and in need of a home. Through flashbacks into Mary’s early life, we learn the reasons for her estrangement from Caroline, and why Caroline is so overprotective of Katie now. This is a YA novel that adults will appreciate, too, a multi-generational story of three women and how the times they live in can dictate the choices they make, and the lives they lead. A great read for teens and adults alike.
Gertie Foy has a pretty good life. Sure, her mom left when she was a baby, but she has a kind and strong dad, a loving Aunt Rae (who lets her eat Twinkies for breakfast!), and two best friends who are happy to help with all the fun "missions" she thinks up. So when Gertie hatches a plan to be the greatest fifth-grader ever, she is certain it will work, and that her mother will realize what she's been missing. Except Gertie didn't count on a new kid, Little Miss Perfect Mary Sue Spivey from California who's friends with movie stars, ruining her plan. Or the fact that the other fifth-graders might not like someone who wants to be better than them at everything. This is a great sometimes-sad-but-always-funny story, and the illustrations by Jillian Tamaki really capture the characters' personalities. I loved Gertie- she is loud and impulsive and makes mistakes, but she's always exactly like herself.
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that sorting out an inheritance can bring out the worst in a family. It should also be acknowledged that a novel about an inheritance makes for some very funny social satire and entertaining story-telling. This story concerns the four Plumb siblings- Beatrice, Jack, Leo and Melody- middle-aged, upper-middle class New Yorkers, all of whom have been counting on their share of the family trust fund to save them from poor financial decisions, only to have that "nest egg" subsumed to save one of them from an extraordinarily bad decision. I loved the way debut novelist Sweeney weaves together in alternating chapters the siblings' tales, and the way that post 9/11 New York becomes a character as well. Ultimately, this book concerns what many family sagas do: are we our brother's keeper; how much do we owe family members who prioritize their needs over our own; and, are we able to detach from our family of origin and stand, finally, as adults, on our own two feet.
My favorite class in college was a course called "The Social History of American Architecture." For a semester, we explored the premise of Winston Churchill's famous quote," We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." The building in this novel is Laurelfield, a century-old estate ouside of Chicago, and the "us" is the Devohr family who owns it. For its inhabitants, the house has been alternately a prison and a paradise, a place where creativity has flourished and one where dreams are abandoned, and a place where some have given up on life, while others have forged new identities. In an incredibly masterful twist of storytelling, Makkai gives us their story backwards, starting in 1999 and traveling back to the turn of the last century. I was reminded constantly when reading this of how easily the details of the past can be forgotten (especially if someone wants them to stay hidden), and yet how the past can still manage to haunt the present anyway. A wonderful riddle of a novel.
Are some towns more magical than others? Sixth-grader Felicity Pickle (whose name I love, by the way) certainly hopes so. Ever since her dad left, she has been bouncing from place to place with her mother and sister. Now they are moving back to her mother's hometown of Midnight Gulch, home to Dr. Zook's Famous Ice Cream Factory, and a place that used to be magical until a mysterious curse ruined it. But as it turns out, the magic may not be completely gone after all. Many of the residents possess special talents, including Felicity herself who sees words floating above everyone's head. Will the Pickles stay in Midnight Gulch, and can their "snicker of magic" bring the town back to life? This is really fun story, highly recommended for fans of Savvy, A Tangle of Knots, and Because of Winn-Dixie.
Do not be misled by the title; this collection of essays by Ann Patchett is not exclusively about marriage, happy or otherwise. Rather, it is an autobiography of sorts, detailing: love and relationships, yes, but also the craft of writing; friendships human and not; and the expectations and obligations of family. My favorite pieces in the book both happen to describe Patchett's relationship with elderly women in her life--one her cantankerous grandmother, and the other a 78-year-old nun named Sister Nena, who is moving into an apartment of her own for the very first time. Those familiar with Patchett's life and work will also enjoy reading about her bookstore in Tennessee, Parnassus Books, and catching a glimpse of Lucy Grealey. A very enjoyable read.
The protagonist of LIAR & SPY is named Georges (yes, with the 's') after the pointillist painter Seurat. And like Seurat's paintings, this enchanting novel is composed of small details which add up to a marvelous whole: the smell of a middle school cafeteria or apartment laundry room, very particular brands of candy, the best way to make scrambled eggs, a child's loft bed made from an old fire escape. It is also a novel of messages passed back and forth -- unusual fortune cookies, and Scrabble letter notes left on a nightstand. The question for the reader then becomes: What do all these messages mean, and do the details add up to the whole picture you were expecting, or not?
At age 25, Jeannette Winterson published her first novel, the semi-autographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, she calls Oranges "the story I could live with...things were much lonelier than that." The central character in both books is her abusive adoptive mother (always referred to as Mrs. Winterson), "a monster, but ... my monster." Jeannette endures a childhood frequently locked out of the house, or worse, locked in the coal bin. Eventually she escapes to study at Oxford: "I wrote my way out." Later she searches for her birth mother, and suffers a nervous breakdown in the process. Why Be Happy is an incredibly honest story of how we can lose ourselves, and how literature can save us.
Steve Martin's Born Standing Up is one of the best memoirs I've read, celebrity or otherwise. This is not a tell-all; rather it's a funny and thoughtful look back at a life in comedy. It's also a great peek into the world of stand-up. Martin discusses everything from how to make balloon animals to his strained relationship with his father. A great and well-written book.
You've probably read Pride and Prejudice (or seen one of the film adaptations), but have you read Persuasion? Jane Austen's last completed novel, its tone is more satirical than her earlier works. It features as its heroine Anne Elliot, 27 years old (!) and still unmarried, regretful that she let her family talk her out of an engagement years earlier. But this is a hopeful novel overall, about second chances and learning to trust one's own counsel. I've read all six of Austen's novels, and this is my favorite.