Ghana Must Go is a cleverly-built novel about a family from Ghana, at least on the father’s side, father whose death brings the children and their mother, long ago abandoned in the US after the father’s professional humiliation, back to Ghana for the funeral. It’s told in a series of flashbacks from each of the children and the mother, sometimes overdone but well observed, whether the author is reflecting on how children adopt stereotypical roles in a large family or how foreigners, too, can be pigeonholed as “natives of a War-Torn Nation” rather than individuals.
A little long in parts and a little confusing in the navigation of the family in others, but with plenty of perfect-toned observations.
All This Talk of Love is a family saga of an Italian-American family with a classic overbearing mother who expects her adult son to call her each and every night, her daughter with her big house, her helicopter parenting style, and her passive-aggressive approach to getting her way, the long-suffering dad who keeps himself responsible for the death of a teenage son. And there are many deaths in the book, not just the one son, which makes for a rather over dramatic and sentimental story, although some of the subthemes are treated deliciously, for instance the poisoned relationship between the son pursing his Ph.D. in English and his exploitative thesis director cum lover.
Still, the larger story is not one that will rock your world — or strain your brain.
In The Innocents, boy meets (remarkably old-fashioned and very proper) girl, dates girl forever, finally gets engaged, and promptly falls in love (lust?) with said girl’s wild cousin. Confusion ensues, although the proper girl is dim-witted enough not to notice the problem, even though her dad (for whom, conveniently, the boy works) has his suspicions. Out of nowhere there is a Madoff-like fraud that seems rather incongruous and doesn’t add much to the story. Alas, the best character is the feisty, holocaust-survivor grandma and neither the inane bride nor her confused groom.
The Kitchen House is that of a plantation with a “good” master with an unstable wife and a troubled son, who soon enough will take over and create trouble. It also has a large group of devoted slaves who run the place while the master travels, in an uneasy peace with a brutal overseer. Enough cliches for you yet? The only twist is the story is the introduction of an orphan white girl who never seems to grasp the fundamental slave/owner division, marries the troubled son although she could have and should have married someone else, and causes many deaths and much destruction as a result, while she is rescued at every turn by the slaves. Pitiful.
David Shields is the master of the unclassifiable book, but sadly with How Literature Saved My Life he is nowhere as successful as with The Thing about Life is That One Day You Will be Dead, which I thought was a delightful mix of personal anecdotes, literary quotes, and reflections. This time, we get the personal anecdotes, and we get the (often wistful) reflections on life and time running out, but unfortunately served with a gigantic helping of literary references that alternates between tedious (as in, an annotated list of 55 books he loves — 17 pages long!) and annoyingly exclusive for those of us who have not read the works. Too bad!
Hildy Good, she with The Good House, is a realtor who drinks too much but must hide it from her daughters who disapprove (and sent her to rehab) and, as much as possible, from her clients. In her small New England town where everyone knwos everyone, except for the rich newcomers, it is a challenge. She speaks her mind, she invokes the spirit of her witch ancestor, she gets along well with her gay ex-husband, she is jealous of her grandson’s other grandmother, whose sober status means she has more access to him. A solid, fun story without pretensions to greatness.
If, like me, you are a little afraid of the aisles in the center of supermarkets, where the boxed foods are, you will find your apprehension validated in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. In a blistering, extensive examination of the food industry in the US, the author shows how it exploits our natural tastes for salt, sugar, and fat to concoct products that are entirely unhealthy, and sell well. This is no conspiracy theory. After all, the food giants are not exactly forcing us to buy Pepperoni & Three Cheese Calzone Hot Pockets (I certainly would never consider it), but they find it convenient to pile on the sugar in kids’ cereals while removing the word sugar from their names, to hire the best chemical engineers to mix pyrophosphates and orthophosphates (don’t wince: it’s Jello!), and to deftly customize salt flakes to match the food they will adorn (thank you, Cargill). All that while the executives of said companies follow healthy diets and exercise regimens.
Perhaps the euphemistically called health classes forced upon high school students could review the effects of high-fructose corn syrup or the differences between food and treats?
Meanwhile, stay away from the center aisles!
It is not my habit to post about books I have not read all the way through. True, I sometimes find myself turning pages a little fast when the book doesn’t grab me, but I feel a duty of reading to the end, more as a courtesy to the author (what if there is an amazingly good ending to a so-so story?) than as a badge of honor for myself.
I did not finish Umbrella. I could not. I gave up on page 119, enough to tell you that it’s a supremely clever story, written in a stream of consciousness style that smoothly moves from the psychiatrist hero to one of his patient, exploring the horrors of mental illness and especially its ill-defined treatments, alongside two extended families. A braver soul than I can try wading through the challenging presentation. I wonder if the swooning critics actually read the book. A page or ten is dazzling. Beyond that, it feels like eating a bowl of sugar.
The End of the Point is the story of a multi-generational family, told from their summer compound on an unnamed Massachusetts island from WWII to today. It’s written from the perspectives of a Scottish nanny at first, then from that of a troubled grandchild who comes to the island to find himself. I found the story to be predictable and leaning towards boring, both from the historical perspective (the son killed in the war, the psychoanalysis of the 60s, the drug culture of the 70′s, the environmental wars of the 90s) and the family itself (the depressed daughter, the rebellious grandson, the demanding matriarch). And I did not care for the stuffy, entitled setting and characters, who expect to ”summer” on the island, get a nice trust fund when they reach adulthood, and inherit the land from grandma without exerting themselves too much in the process.
The best part of the book for me, by far, was the story of the Scottish nanny, and especially her fierce love of her charges, so much so that she neglects her own happiness. Not coincidentally, she is also outside the entitlement circle.
A Week in Winter is the last novel of Maeve Binchy, in a setting that’s a tad artificial in its gathering of strangers at a newly-opened bed and breakfast, but with many endearing characters, starting with the owner, who has an entirely fictional life, complete with a fictional husband, behind her — and no one is the wiser. The chapters are told from the points of view of the various actors and are most successful in the beginning of the book but if you enjoy the fiction that hard work always win out in the end, especially if it involves sheltering or feeding people, that most every human enterprise can end well, including teenagers getting pregnant (with twins!), and above all that (mostly) good things happen to good people, you are looking at a few hours of happiness.