“From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home” by Tembi Locke

Genre:  MemoirFrom Scratch
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: April 30, 2019

I usually feel apprehensive when beginning a memoir. There are hundreds of memoirs written, usually ghostwritten, often from those in the entertainment business.  Tembi Locke is an actress and I wondered if I was in for a poorly written, vanity book. From the first sentence, I knew this was not going to be the case. “In Sicily, every story begins with a marriage or a death.” I was already hooked.

The author is an African American from Texas.  Besides being a mom and an actress, she is also an activist.  She meets her future Sicilian husband, Saro when she is in college and doing a semester in Italy. He is a chef who was born, lives, and works in a part of the world that holds onto their traditions with a firm grasp. Even though the couple has their wedding reception in Italy, his parents do not attend. His father has forbidden anyone in his family from attending because his son is marrying a black, non-catholic woman. Her parents gladly attended, arriving in full Texan gear while dancing the Harlem Shuffle at the reception. The author gives you enough information to make you wonder, how could this cross-cultural couple make it? Yet, “He soothed the places I hadn’t known needed soothing… Together we had engaged life as two forks eating off one plate.”  Tembi writes as if her marriage was a great love affair. “Our undoing was cancer…Pain is part of life. That much I knew.” However, she makes it clear that nothing could prepare her for the years of caretaking and the crippling grief once Saro dies from the disease. The entire book might have been an exercise in catharsis. If so, she made it work.

When Tembi returns to Sicily to bury Saro’s ashes, she develops a new bond with her mother-in-law through the Sicilian food they prepare in Saro’s parents’ tiny kitchen. She writes, “Cooking is about surrender.”  In the tradition of “Like Water For Chocolate,” “Scratch” is a recipe book and love story that is told through cooking a meal.  Tembi and her daughter come to spend their summers in Sicily and she embraces the slow-paced lifestyle.  One of her favorite chores is after a meal, joining the other village women to shake out their tablecloths—in the middle of the road—so not to attract ants into their home.  The author comes to know and understand her late husband’s family. Okay, there are some “Godfather” jokes, but in the end, a Sicilian neighbor, who does not understand a syllable of English, tells her family that their daughter, Tembi, “is one of us.” As Tembi says, “Sicily was the water and sun that fortified me to stand stronger in my life after loss.”

Locke’s memoir immediately reveals to the reader that she is a powerful storyteller. She fills her book with sensory experiences of Sicily. “The hot air was pregnant with jasmine and eucalyptus.”  Although the lyrical prose is glorious, I sometimes found that the vivid imagery throughout the memoir took over her story. I would have enjoyed reading less poetry on the wonders of Sicily (to be fair she also educates her readers on its history) and learned more about the details of her married life in America, which seems to have been skipped over.  I’m guessing this was done on purpose since the author’s tale is really about the salve that she found in Sicily.  Also, sometimes, the connection between food and kitchen wisdom was a bit too overplayed.  But, who am I to contradict her memories and healing process?  I devoured this book.  Once finished, I could not wait to celebrate life by going into my own kitchen to boil water for pasta. The author’s soul-searching words make for a heartfelt memoir that is part devastating, part uplifting, and always a beautiful tribute to life and love.

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“Redhead by the Side” of the Road by Anne Tyler

Genre: Literary FictionRedhead
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

If I was to host a dinner party with my favorite female authors whose first name is some sort of derivative of “Ann” my guests would include Ann Napolitano, Ann Patchett, Anna Quindlen, and Anne Tyler. In Tyler’s latest novel, the narrative’s tone is overflowing with laugh-out-loud dry wit.  Her protagonist, Micah (an example of a difficult name to remember that I just switch to Michael in my mind) Mortimer is another likable yet quirky character, the kind that the author favors. It takes talent to write comedy with a rather dull hero.

Micah is a fastidiously well-organized 43-year-old tech geek who follows his routines to the point of bordering on OCD.  He heeds all rules, big or small, believing that this gives his life a sense of order. He pretends that there is a Big Brother-like Traffic God watching his every move in the car, which is why he always, always signals—even in his own driveway! When those living in the building he manages do not follow the guidelines, he writes them “friendly” reminders. Most residents get one or more per week. And the poor guy can’t figure out why women keep dumping him.

Micah is the extreme opposite of his lackadaisical family, which makes for some very funny dialogue between himself and the other Mortimers. His brother-in-law asks him “What day is it today? Is it [your] vacuuming day, a dusting day? Is it a scrub-the-baseboards-with-a-Q-tip day? In all seriousness, Micah replies, “it is kitchen day.” His family roars. Halfway through the novel, we meet a new character. A teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. Since Micah is not built for life’s unexpected developments, his world becomes unmanageable. It is not a spoiler to inform you that the redhead in the title is not referring to the boy. Tyler cleverly uses the word redhead throughout the novel as a metaphor for the protagonist’s powerlessness to see clearly.  Is that a redhead child? No, it is a fire hydrant.

Micah fails to understand the ‘need’ to accept—or at least try to accept—the yin and yang of life. He stubbornly refuses to see that he might be the problem.  In the hands of a lesser author, he could easily come off as Mr. Magoo. Tyler keeps him human. She also makes us wonder. Is Miach even capable of change?  Are any of us capable of change?  In the tradition of “Akin” by Emma Donoghue, or “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, “Redhead” is a feel-good story about having second chances in life. Wouldn’t we all like a do-over? Yes, you have read this story before. Still, right about now in these crazy times, can’t we all benefit from a heartwarming tale?

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“Akin” by Emma Donoghue

Genre:  Domestic FictionAkin
Publisher:   Little, Brown and Company
Pub. Date:  Sept. 10, 2019

This novel has shades of Fredrik Backman’s, “A Man Called Ove.” “Akin” also revolves around a lonely, elderly widower who learns to broaden his definition of family. In Emma Donoghue’s latest book, she gets the reader to think about the meaning of love, freedom, and family. If you read the author’s “Room,” you probably won’t forget the 5-year-old boy’s perspective of being held captive with his kidnapped mother in an outdoor shed. In her latest tale, she returns to the story of a child and an adult trapped—this time figuratively—together. It takes a while to make that connection between the novels since the circumstances this time are unusual, but not bizarre.  “Room” was a horror novel laced with sweetness. “Akin” is a sweet novel laced with the horrors of living in poverty. Donough’s latest novel is good but, “Room” is the stronger of the two books.

The protagonist is a newly retired 79-year-old chemistry professor. He is preparing for a week-long visit to Nice, France, where he was born. He hasn’t seen his birthplace since he was shipped off to America as a child to escape the Nazis. Days away from his trip, he receives an out-of-the-blue phone call from a social worker. The author does such a good job nailing the harried life of those who work in social services. “She turned out to have a caseload of twenty-four…when asked how she remembered who was who, she laughed darky and said that she and her colleagues were just doing triage.”  The reason behind her call is that a boy’s grandmother, who he was living with, just passed away.  His father died of an overdose and his mother is incarcerated. She informs him that the boy is his eleven-year-old great-nephew and needs a temporary home or he will be placed in foster care. The distant relatives have never met. They live in different worlds. The uncle has a privileged and cultured lifestyle residing in the upper west side of NYC. The boy’s world consists of poverty, drugs, gangs and police corruption that can be found in some areas of Brooklyn, NY.

The uncle takes his nephew with him to France (if he didn’t there wouldn’t be a story) with the intention of returning him to the social worker once they are back in the States.  As you can probably guess, there are funny scenes written into the dialogue and interactions between them.  In a way, Donoghue gives us a 2019 version of “The Odd Couple.”  They wander around Nice, irritated with each other and aggravating everyone who comes in contact with them.  The boy regards his new guardian as a dinosaur, while his video games, selfie stick, cursing, and horrendous grammar drive the uncle crazy. There is a side plot devoted to the man’s long deceased mother.  The old gent has reasons to suspect that his mother was a member of the Nazi party. Man and boy go on a quest to learn the truth. The author may have stumbled here. Not by adding in a historical fiction component but, with their thoughts on what may have happened. Their repetitive mental guesses become annoying and interfered with an otherwise touching tale. “He and this boy were quite alien to each other, yet, in an odd way, akin.” You might have also guessed that by the end of the book the boy’s life isn’t the only one being rescued.

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“The Great Unexpected” by Dan Mooney

Genre:           General FictionThe Great Unexpected
Publisher:    Trade Publishing
Pub. Date:    June 25, 2019

This tenderly written novel is both depressing and hilarious.  The plot revolves around two old men living in a nursing home.   Think “A Man Called Ove” meets “The Odd Couple.”  One is an introverted curmudgeon who has been there for years and considers his place of residency a prison.  He walks around all day in his pajamas.  In younger years he was a working-class mechanic who owned the shop.  Nowadays, he desperately misses being the boss.  He has given up on life and has suicidal thoughts.  The other old dude is a sweetheart who has just moved in.  He once worked as a soap opera actor.  He is flamboyant, extraverted and just happens to be gay.  This man dresses meticulously and always wears an accent scarf.  He makes the best out of the living in the home, though he too misses his working life.  The author has them sharing a room opening up all sorts of humor.  Mooney does a great job nailing their differences and incompatibility.  In the “outside world” they would never have been friends, but “locked up” together they create an unbreakable ying-yang friendship.

The real meat on the bones of the story is how the elderly are often thrown aside and made to feel isolated and useless.  Mooney shows this best when the two old men sneak out to visit the mechanic’s old shop.  The reader will feel the weight of depression when the mechanic realizes that now he is just an intruder and is asked to leave the premises. The author skillfully handles the sensitive subject of suicide.  And somehow manages to make humor work so it doesn’t read all doom and gloom.  He does this without minimizing the seriousness of suicidal ideation.  Not an easy task.  At times the writing gets sweetly/schmaltzy with a family reconnecting.   Nor is the plot always believable.  If you have ever been in a nursing home you know that sneaking out is unlikely. Still,  two old man enjoying high school antics is fun to read.    If you are in the mood for a story that will make you cry and laugh at the same time this one is for you.

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“The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs” by Janet Peery

Genre:         Adult Fiction                    The Exact Nature of our Wrongs

Pub. Date:   September 19, 2017

Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press

Tolstoy’s begins “Anna Karenina” with his now famous first line of “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That opening is a fitting way to begin this review by author, Janet Peery, a National Book Award finalist in 1996.   In this character-driven novel, her work has shades of Jonathan Franzen’s, “The Corrections.”   “Exact Nature” is a family drama that looks into the dynamics of a family in Kansas as the parents enter their sunset years. The wife has been a homemaker and her husband is a retired judge who is now showing signs of dementia. They had six children but lost one child decades earlier after a lifetime of health issues.  The surviving five adult children are well into middle-age and learning how to cope with their aging parents.  Unfortunately, their children might be living in their middle-aged bodies, but seem trapped within their ten-year-old minds, filled with sibling rivalry. The children (still in competition for being the favorite) all have eyes on their parents’ estate that they hope to inherit, especially one special chair of their father’s.

In an obvious attempt to obtain the chair, the youngest daughter suggests hosting an 89th birthday party for the father.  She innocently suggests bringing the chair over to her home so he can sit in it during the party.  The siblings all see right through this and they are annoyed.  The reader is chuckling.  At the party, the youngest, their mother’s favorite, passes out in the birthday cake.  The youngest is a charming, sweet, gay man who is also hopelessly drug-addicted.  They realize once again they will need to drag him to rehab.  But it soon becomes clear that, although the youngest is the designated problem child, all the children have issues.  Unlike the youngest, they are functioning, but still struggle with prescription drugs, maintaining long-term relationships, foreclosure, DUIs (thank goodness the judge still has some influence), and a hidden sexual identity issue.   None are shining stars.  In other words, they are your typical dysfunctional family, and they are all unhappy in their own way.  But here is the thing: they are as caring as they are troubled.  And throughout the story, just when you think they are terrible to one another, you come to see their unbreakable bonds.  You will giggle when the daughters take their mom on a “mother-daughter” day road trip to see her childhood home.  They almost kill each other through bickering, yet the end result is heartwarming.

In beautiful prose, Perry, gives us a portrayal of real life, with characters as flawed as real people. We are given an authentic year in their lives, complete with medical, emotional, mental, physical, and financial troubles.   I found this novel to be a spot-on family portrait, with its members still loving each other for who they are.  A story about forgiveness without being preachy, it left me with lingering warmth.  This is a good book to help one remember that in today’s world we all seem obsessed with appearing perfect, when in reality none of us are or ever will be.  The youngest son spends time wondering how there can be so many troubles in a family built around a marriage that seemed trouble-less by comparison.  He is unable to find an answer.  The reader is free to make their own conclusion, for Perry does not tell us. We are left with the thought-provoking question of just what makes a family a happy or unhappy one.   It may not be as simple as Tolstoy suggested.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Sleepwalker” by Chris Bohjalian

sleepwalker.jpg

Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, and I believe he is one of our greatest storytellers.  I am always excited when he publishes something new.  This book, his latest, is marketed as a mystery thriller.  But Bohjalian is such a gifted writer I prefer to say that this is a literary thriller (his novels always improve my vocabulary even though I need to stop reading to look up the meaning of a word). This tale reminds me of an old foreign film, meaning that the pace is slow (unlike most thrillers), but worth the wait.   Our location is a small Vermont town.  I love when he writes stories located in rural Vermont, since I live there in the summers and get a kick out of local references.  The book begins in early 2000.  Remember our Y2K fear when we were all waiting for computers to crash?   Or when there were no smart phones or social media?  This is important to the plot, as the story is about a missing woman, and how much harder it was just 17 years ago to search for a missing person.

In a family of four, father, mother, and their 21-year-old and 12-year-old daughters–it is the mother who goes missing.  The mother also happens to be a sleepwalker, of which the whole town is aware.  The mother and the rest of the family are ashamed of her public sleepwalking.  The tale raises provocative questions about what goes on in our minds during the eerie period when we are not really sleeping and not really awake.  I learned much about sleep disorders, and our unconscious sexual state.  I actually googled the phenomenon to make sure Bohjalian wasn’t making them seem more bizarre than they actually are. He didn’t.

The 21-year old daughter is the narrator throughout the story.      She is an amateur magician.  It took me awhile to understand that her magic has a connection to her mom’s magical state of sleepwalking.  Once her mom goes missing, she does not return to college.  Instead she stays home and takes on the role of housewife and mother.  I found this to be unnerving.  The author chooses to leave the reader wondering if she was being a supportive family member, if she was in a depressed state, or if her new responsibilities where making her feel delusional.    I felt it was a bit of all three.  Again, I thought about her job as an amateur magician, and the mysterious and delusions of magic.

I was a tad disappointed when the elder daughter begins a probably unethical relationship with a detective on the case.  And as the family secrets are slowly revealed, I found it hard to believe that she would not end the relationship with him (if I explain more here it will be a spoiler).  But I tried to remember that this character was only 21-years-old, at an age when most of us are not thinking clearly about love affairs.  Still, I didn’t think the affair was needed in the plot.  There were so many suspicious persons and reasons that may have been involved in wanting her mother to disappear or be killed.  I felt the romance made this superior novel a bit more like a classic detective story yarn.  But maybe that is just me as I do not care for the genre of contemporary romance.  All in all, the author gives us another knockout story with Hitchcockian suspense.  The ending had me going back to see if I could find the clues that I missed.

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