Family Relationships

The Light of the World

You might recall Elizabeth Alexander—she read the poem at President Obama’s first inauguration. This memoir by the prize-winning poet covers a much more private, interior space. It tells the story of her love, marriage and family, and especially the jagged rent in her life caused by her husband’s death.

The first chapter queries where the actual story begins. Is it the beautiful April morning in Hamden, Connecticut when Ficre Ghebreyesus returns to his younger son Simon’s trundle bed, saying, “This is the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in.”? Is it when Ficre ran out of the house to buy three dozen lottery tickets on a hunch, wanting the win the lottery for Elizabeth? Or is it way back in ’61 when two women on opposite sides of the earth become pregnant, one carrying a first-born girl, another carrying a later-born son?

The couple met in a New Haven coffee shop; Ficre came over and introduced himself.  He was a chef who had escaped from war-torn Eritrea, Africa at age sixteen.  He became a refugee in Sudan, Germany, Italy and finally, the States. Torn from his family for many years, he ended up in New Haven and in the 90s began painting.

He later said he would never marry a woman who did not honor and love her parents. Luckily, Elizabeth more than fit that bill.

Some Luck

Before this century, farming was a way of life for many Americans. In the 1920s, 20% of our workforce labored on farms. Now it is less than 2%.  This novel, the first of a trilogy, covers the lives of an extended agricultural family, the Langdons, from the 1920s to the 1950s.

In 1920 Walter Langdon, a young 25-year-old walks the land of his new farm. His father thought he didn’t need to start on his own yet, but Walter disagreed. He had a wife after all--the beautiful and practical, Rosanna--and now a six-month-old son, the treasured Frank. As the first grandchild in the family, he receives tons of love and praise.

The novel covers a cycle of births, deaths, marriages, and children coming of age for two generations. The pace is slow, the characterization, deep, and you feel that you are really experiencing life as it was lived on an Iowa farm.

Refund: Stories

Although she has written three novels, this is Karen Bender’s first collection of stories. Wow can the woman write.

Two of her short stories have won Pushcart Prizes and several others have been included in Best American collections, both for short stories and for mystery stories.

The pieces are irreverent, funny and sad at the same time, and rich with the absurdities and bizarreness of modern American life.  For instance, “The Sea Turtle Hospital” vividly describes a lockdown at a grade school. Bender’s writing is non-judgmental but rich in detail.

The narrator in this story gets the job of locking the door and pulling down the shades (what protection would thin shades provide?),  while the other teacher hustles the children into a closet. They proceed to eventually rolling the children up in a stinky rug after shots ring out. All the while anxious parents text the narrator.

One of the weirdest stories is “The Cat” where a mother adopts a kitten. Bender is a whizz at getting children down--both their conversations and behavior. 

But the story is really about the mother in this story, six years out from breastfeeding, but the kitten’s mews cause a let-down reflex and her milk to return. This leads to consultations with a breast surgeon who has a pet iguana. “Cold,” the mother says.  You’ll have to read it to find out what happens.

Bender seems drawn to non-politically correct topics.  In “A Chick from My Dream Life” she describes two teenage sisters whose parents offer them little attention. Their father is very depressed but the girls don’t know why he spends all day on the living room couch not wanting them near.

The younger sister, Betsey, has an arm that ends in a point like “the tailed end of whipped cream.” As the older sister, Sally, takes it upon herself to hide it in tube tops or paint it in vivid colors. When their dad starts ignoring them, they wander to the beach where Betsey sneaks away to kiss boys, telling them that her name was Sally.

“Theft” describes an older woman’s vacation on a cruise ship to Alaska after a life of crime. She meets a young woman, Darlene, who has a broken heart. The two women bond. Ginger tries to toughen Darlene up, tells her what to say to get her boyfriend back, while revealing some of her own backstory and how her parents and sister abandoned her. That’s what spurned her to become a first-class swindler.

Many of the stories etch out feelings of loneliness or loss, but with a quirky, off-kilter humor that makes everything bearable. Her narrators are smart, observant, and fallible--very much like us. Bender’s writing recalls that of the wonderful short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Try Flannery's Complete Stories.

The Black Snow

Irish writer Paul Lynch begins his second novel with a vivid barn burning scene--one of the most powerful novel openers I’ve read in a long time. It starts out calm, some farmhands working quietly in a field, the farm owner’s wife, Eskra, baking, until the scent of smoke and a dark cloud rising suggest that something is very wrong.

The farmer, Barnabas Kane, races to the barn with a loyal worker, and Barnabas presses inside and nudges Matthew Peoples inside also. They try to rescue the fifty seven cattle that are banging their stalls in a frenzy of fear. A friend rescues the farmer, but the other man never gets out, nor do most of the cattle.

The book shows the aftermath of that fire.  For months, the house stinks of smoke: the towels, the sheets, even the wallpaper. In one scene, Barnabas rips down curtains, slashes the wallpaper, even tears his clothes off after recognizing their smoky smell. Eskra comes home and believes he has lost his mind.

Outline

This quiet introspective read is not for everyone. In it, British novelist Rachel Cusk, examines relationships and self-identity in a series of ten conversations that make up the book. The action occurs in the span of one week while a narrator travels to Greece for a week long writing seminar that she is teaching.

Caveat: this is one of the most unusual novels I have ever read. The author’s voice is sure, steady, and at times mesmerizing. It’s not an action novel in any sense, but rich with everyday life in a way that recalls Virginia Woolf’s works.  Philosophical with wry humor and a deep sense of what makes people tick.

The first dialogue begins on the plane with her seatmate, a wealthy Greek, who is twice, make that thrice divorced. As happens so often in life, the two passengers share many secrets about their lives. We learn that the Greek has a disabled brother and disabled child.  His ex, the mother of his son, wanted to institutionalize the boy, but the

Orphan Train

I had a personal connection to this novel because my mom was raised as an orphan in Chicago. Luckily, she never had to experience adoptions or sharing foster homes with unloving parents but she did start out on her own at age sixteen working as a salesgirl in the Chicago Loop.

This touching intertwined story of two orphans: one contemporary and one from depression era days, was a quick and touching read. It begins with Goth-looking Molly, a young, half-Native America girl from Maine who just got busted for stealing a book from the public library.  Really? Well not every detail in a novel has to be 100% authentic.   

In case you’re curious, Molly took the third and the most beaten-up copy of Jane Eyre.

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