The real challenge for this blog post is how to go about describing the plot of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro without spoiling the plot twist.  Because really, I can’t even say what the book is about without spoiling a surprising fact that you’ll discover about a quarter of the way into it.  So  I’ll do this as cryptically as possible.

The story is being told by Kathy, who is now in her 30s and is reflecting on her childhood at an English boarding school called Hailsham.  The students, completely isolated from the outside world, are all….special.  All I will say is that they have a unique origin and purpose, and they are constantly told that their well-being is very important.  After reconnecting with her two best friends  from Hailsham, Ruth and Tommy, Kathy looks back on her time at the school and how it prepared her (and didn’t prepare her) for what was to come in her future.

I know, that’s very cryptic.  I will say that it’s a dystopian novel with some sci-fi elements, but don’t let that turn you off if you’re not a sci-fi fan.  It’s really an interesting and thought-provoking story about friendship and what it means to grow up knowing your future is set in a certain way.  Kazuo Ishiguro writes in a very conversational tone, which I enjoyed because I felt as though I was having a conversation with Kathy, personally hearing all her old tales from Hailsham.  It is particularly a good book for a book club, because it opens up a lot of discussion possibilities on a controversial subject matter.

How do you define family? Is it just the people you’re related to by blood or by marriage? Or does it include the friends that stand by you through thick and thin? What about the people that leave but come back? And what about those that live on only in your memory? In a world that is constantly redefining itself, who do you call your family?

Despite their differences Janey, Jill and Katie become best friends, bound together by the common stresses of working as post-grad students in Seattle in The Atlas of Love. When Jill becomes pregnant and then is abandoned by the baby’s father, the three form a makeshift family and come together to raise Atlas themselves. Juggling teaching schedules, classes and child care at first seems just possible if everything goes smoothly, but of course, life is not smooth or predictable. Katie falls in love and decides to marry, Jill becomes depressed and begins to drift away and Janey struggles to hold everything together by herself. Then Atlas’ absent father returns and the little family is thrown into chaos. The resulting turmoil of anger, fear, concern and yes, love means that while almost everything is different, one thing stays the same – family. Family that is no longer defined by rigid rules, but is flexible enough to encompass all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, all drawn to one common goal – to love and support each other no matter what.

Narrated in Janey’s wry voice, this book moves from laugh-out-loud funny to infuriating to sweet and sad as these young women define and redefine their own improvised family.

christmasmemory

If you’re like me and associate Truman Capote primarily with In Cold Blood, you might be pleasantly surprised to find something totally different in his “tiny gem of a short story,” A Christmas Memory.  It fits the bill if you are looking for something meaningful yet humorous, and something nostalgic but not excessively sentimental.

The story is largely autobiographical, a classic memoir of Capote’s childhood in rural Alabama in the early 1930’s.  Until he was ten, Capote lived with distant relatives and this is his recollection (written in the present tense) of the time spent with a favorite cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, when he was about seven.  Sook is a simple, older woman (perhaps mid-sixties) and is herself much like a child.  Together they make fruitcakes — some for friends and neighbors,  some to be shipped away.  They count the money they have saved over the year (somewhere between $12.73 and $13.00) and decide they have enough to purchase all the ingredients, including a quart of “sinful” whiskey.  Afterwards, they get a little tipsy on the leftover moonshine.  They also chop down their own Christmas tree and end up making kites for each other as presents.  The kleenex part comes at the end when Buddy is sent away to military school, never to see Sook again.

The Davenport Library also has a DVD version of this story, starring Patty Duke as Sook.  Unchararcteristically, the movie actually has more character development than what is actually revealed in the sparse print version.  However, the same message still comes through in both — that friendship and caring for each other, no matter the gap in years — never goes out of style.

every last cuckooEvery Last Cuckoo is a tender book which will pull at your heartstrings.  The protagonist is a 75 year old woman, Sarah Lucas, who is still very much in love with her husband, Charles.  When Charles dies unexpectedly (yes, even 80 year olds die unexpectedly) Sarah is left alone in her rural Vermont home, tentatively dealing with her grief and loss.  Yet she is not alone for long.  First, her rebellious granddaughter, Lottie, seeks refuge with Sarah away from her overbearing parents.  Lottie is quickly joined by a few of her friends with family problems of their own.

Others in the community begin to look to Sarah to shelter those in need — to harbor the young mother who has been beaten by her husband — to temporarily house those without heat — to offer quiet sanctuary for an author returned from Israel.  Each finds their way to Sarah’s doorstep and each contributes to the growing household in their own way.  Sarah finds time to take long walks in the woods and to reflect upon her life.  In doing so, the reader also comes to a better understanding of what it means to live, albeit imperfectly, a full and gracious life.  This is an easy read with book club questions included at the end.

to kill mockingbirdMy favorite banned book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I loved this book; I loved the movie.  I can still picture (in black and white) Gregory Peck portaying the consummate Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, wiping his brow in the hot, segregated courtroom while his adoring daughter Scout, looks on from the balcony.

Set in a small Southern town in Alabama during the Depression, the book follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother Jem and their father, Atticus, who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.  Thus, the book covers many issues, but because it is told through the eyes of young Scout, it never comes off as judgmental or preachy.

I could never understand why someone would not want others to read this book.  It won the Pulitzer Prise, it’s been translated into more than forty languages and was voted the best novel of the twentieth century.  If somehow you got through school without reading this book, now is the time to do so.  Come to think of it, it may be about time for me to read it again — it’s that good!

pay it forwardRemember the movie, Pay It Forward (2000) with Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt?  The one in which the teacher (Spacey) encourages his students to make the world a better place?  By the way, in case you don’t know — as I didn’t — the movie is actually based on a book with the same title by Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Anyway, in the book or the movie,  one of his students actually comes up with a plausible plan: to pay it forward.  In other words, if someone does you a kind deed, rather than paying it back, you pay it forward, to three new people.

Well, recently, my husband and I were recipients of a kind deed.  We were out shopping for replacement steps to our hot tub; after 16 years, its wooden stairs had finally disintegrated. We looked at building them ourselves (cost: $50 plus, not to mention time and effort).  Another store sold cedar steps for $100 — a bit pricey.  At our final stop, the salesperson was showing us floor samples in hard plastic.  Another customer spoke up and said, “I have three of those at home; if you want one, just follow me home and you can have one.”  At first, we weren’t certain he was serious and we didn’t want to appear cheap.  But even the sales guy offered, “Well, you can’t beat a deal like that!”  So, we followed him home, got the steps and offered to pay him.  His reply: “Just do something nice for someone else.”  Translation: pay it forward.

So, I’m still looking for ways to do just that.  Though I’m not quite ready to donate a kidney, I am hoping some random act of kindness will make itself blatantly obvious.  In the meantime, if you know of a need — please let me know.  I need to forward some payments.

south of broadI couldn’t wait to read South of Broad — Pat Conroy hasn’t written a novel in 14 years  — though he did write a memoir (My Losing Season) and a cookbook.   I was also curious about the Charleston, South Carolina connection.  In Charleston, south of Broad Street (S.O.B.) is teasingly differentiated from slightly north of Broad (SNOB) in reference to the upscale residents there.  None of the reviewers seemed to catch this obvious pun.  At any rate, I do have to agree with reviewer Chris Bohjalian, who stated, “Even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy’s heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish.”  That’s how I felt, too.  The book definitely kept my interest but there were details that irritated me.  I questioned the likelihood of all those high school sweethearts actually marrying.  I was kept worrying about his brother’s suicide until the very end.  I found some of the dialogue forced.

Still — I’d rather have you form your own opinion, so here’s a short synopsis of the plot.  The book begins in the summer of 1969, just as the main character (Leopold Bloom King — yes, named after the character in Joyce’s Ulysses) is about to enter his senior year in high school.  After a miserable childhood, marked primarily by the unexpected suicide of his golden-boy brother, Leo becomes friends with an unlikely group which includes orphans, blacks, members of the socially elite and charismatic twins, Trevor and Sheba Poe.  Fast forward twenty years — Sheba is now a famous movie star and Trevor is wasting away with AIDS.  Sheba recruits this same group — still best friends — to find Trevor in San Francisco and bring him back home to Charleston.

In my opinion, this is not Conroy’s best work, but it’s one that many will still enjoy reading.

breaking awayThere’s lots of bicycling in the news this week – RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is at the halfway point and the Tour de France will finish on Sunday (can Lance Armstrong pull off his comeback?) Keep the bicycling theme going and check out the movie Breaking Away, one of the best sports movies ever made.

Set in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, four friends are caught in limbo after finishing high school, not know what they want to do next. The college kids derisively call them “cutters” (for the stone quarry where most of their blue-collar fathers work). Dave escapes into his dream of becoming a bicycle racer for the world champion Italian team by training rigorously and even learning to speak Italian (much to his father’s chagrin). After one dream is shattered, an unexpected opportunity opens when a local team (the “Cutters”, led by Dave) is allowed to compete in the famous Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University. What follows will have you cheering for what’s possible against impossible odds.

Loosely based on a true story (there really is a Little 500 race at Indiana University) this heartwarming (in the best sense) movie is more than a story about a bicycle race – it’s also about family and home, about loyalty and friendship, about accepting and embracing change, about finding your perfect place in the world. Beautifully acted (Dennis Christopher, Paul Dooley, Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie) this inspiring film will make you laugh, cry and cheer.

Enchanted AprilLong available only on VHS tape, Enchanted April has finally been released on DVD. Fans of beautiful scenery, charming stories and happy endings rejoice!

Two middle class English housewives, feeling downtrodden and forlorn, decide to rent an Italian villa for the month of April. To help with expenses they include two strangers – an elderly woman and a beautiful socialite. Leaving England in the rain, they are somewhat discouraged to find it still raining when they arrive in Italy, but the next morning reveals the countryside in all its beauty.  Soon the sunshine, warmth and quiet solitude work their magic; friendships are forged, marriages healed, memories made.

This is a light – and yes, enchanting – movie filled with humor and heartfelt stories. It is beautifully made (filmed on location in Portofino) and the cast is stellar (Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Alfred Molina, Josie Lawrence) This is the perfect ancedote to a hectic or rainy day, or any day that you just want to feel good.

belong-to-me

Having grown up in Philadelphia and lived in New York City, Cornelia Brown believes the suburbs will be a piece of cake. Turns out the slice of the American dream that Cornelia and her husband Teo move to is just as full of drama, heartache, secrets and joys as anywhere else.

Early on in Belong to Me, Cornelia struggles to find a place among the women and families of her new neighborhood. When Piper, the “leader” of the local social network, takes an instant dislike to her, it looks like things will get ugly. But then by chance Cornelia meets Lake, also new to the area and they begin to form a bond. Not everything is as it seems – we learn that Piper is caring for her terminally ill best friend and is not quite the dragon she presents to the world, that seemingly perfect marriages have cracks and that Lake has secrets that will affect them all.

de los Santos writes about the daily living with family and children and events both large and small with grace and clarity, but she is especially good at revealing the intricaces of the friendships of women; there is a lot of emotion here, but no sentimentality. Characters are complex, with flaws, but also hugely likeable, people that you’d like to know and have over for coffee.

This is a follow-up to de los Santos first book, Love Walked In where we first meet Cornelia and Teo and learn how they got together.