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Book Review 47: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

26 Dec

When I was a sophomore in college, I tore through Jan Karon’s Mitford series. I think I read ten of those books over my Christmas break. Looking back on it, it was an odd series to tear through because the books move at the glacial pace of the small town of Mitford. There were semi-quirky characters and plot lines with impossibly low stakes, but they were comforting. They’re easy to read, and because there was so little plot I could fly through them.

All that is just to say that this book reminded me of the Mitford series. Major Pettigrew’s story was charming, and heart warming, and he got his happy ending. He has strong moral principles, and while he occasionally wavers, he always does the right thing by the people he cares about most. After watching television show after television show filled with amoral antiheroes, it’s a nice, quiet change of pace. And the book dealt with some interesting class and race issues in the UK.

Ultimately though, I couldn’t get very invested in Major Pettigrew. I think if I read two more books about him, I would’ve cared more. I simply didn’t know enough about him, and didn’t find his story gripping enough, to care much. I would recommend the book as a relaxing, slow read if you need a book to read at your leisure.

Book Review 45: The Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani

24 Oct

*I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book from the Author.*

I have a special place in my heart for Adriana Trigiani’s books. They’re warm, welcoming, family oriented and they simply make you feel good. A little romance, a little over-the-top Italian family drama, some anachronistic professions that feel quaint in the modern world – they’re simple.

This particular book is about Valentine, a shoemaker, who falls in love with Gianluca, her much older leather supplier.  It’s a nice enough story, but it felt a little artificial.  Valentine is constantly worrying – about his age, about whether they should have kids, about her ex who is still present in her life, about where to live. On the one hand, these are issues that need to be worked out before marriage. Continue reading

Book Review 39: Persuasion by Jane Austen

22 Oct

I don’t think I’m a Jane Austen person, and it’s unfortunate. These are the kinds of books I should like. They’re usually quiet, family dramas with excellent character development and classic themes.

I guess when I read a book that’s ultimately a romance, here between Anne Elliot and Captain Wenthworth, I want to feel more invested in the characters. I just wasn’t here. Anne and Capitain Wentworth barely knew each other, and they both recognized that by the standards of the time, they weren’t a “suitable” match. I’m not a “love at first sight” person, so I suppose I can’t empathize with the predicament.   Continue reading

Book Review 33: This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathon Tropper

29 May

I immediately reserved this book at the library after I read about the cast for the upcoming movie edition. The cast is basically a who’s who of people Pajibans (and America) loves. I was lukewarm towards the book, but I can’t help but feel that a cast with great chemistry could make me love a movie adaptation. It’s a family dramedy, which is normally right up my alley.  When the Foxman patriarch dies, his four adult children and an assortment of their friends and lovers gather to sit Shiva, although they were not even remotely religious growing up.

The middle son (Jason Bateman), going through a painful divorce with his soon to be ex-wife (Abigail Spencer), anchors the story, attempting to hold both himself and his family together while reconnecting with his high school flame (Rose Byrne).  His younger brother (Adam Driver) is irresponsible, wasteful and free spirited the way youngest siblings often are, and he comes home with his much older, life coach girlfriend (Connie Britton!!) only to fuck things up for his family and his relationship.

One of the most compelling dramatic tensions in the story was the tension between the oldest brother (Corey Stoll) and the middle brother. A traumatic event in their youth dramatically altered the course of the oldest brother’s life, and neither brother has ever addressed the underlying jealousy and resentment that event caused. Watching them work through their past was satisfying.

The biggest drawback for me is that the only sister in the family (played by Tina Fey) gets the short shift. Continue reading

Book Review 32: The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

27 May

Similar to Life After LifeThe Post Birthday World also looks at alternate timelines of the protagonist’s life.  Irina McGovern takes family friend Ramsey Acton to dinner for his birthday one evening while her husband is traveling. And her choice that night sets off two alternate timelines.  In the first, she begins a torrid affair with alcoholic, reckless but passionate Ramsey.  In the second, she opts out of pursuing an affair and stays with her stable, long term partner Lawrence who shares her interests, challenges her intellectually and shares her home.

Much of what I enjoyed about this book is what I found so beautiful in Life After Life. I think everyone imagines what their life would look like if they’d made a different decision, chosen a different career,  married their first love, run off with the handsome man they met at a bar one night, never had children, etc. But when we fantasize about those things, we imagine a life infinitely better than our own. In our imaginations, when we make the other choice – the sun always shines, we never fight, we love our boss, our work is fulfilling and we never work weekends, our children with our hypothetical partner are well behaved and darling, etc. What daydreaming about the “what ifs” of life you never think about the hard times.

And there are hard times. The Post Birthday World is such an honest depiction of how the timelines would play out for Irina, including all the gritty day to day details and sadness we forget in our own imaginations, that it can be a little painful to read at times. Continue reading

Book Review 29: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

6 May

I’m on a roll with reading fantastic novels after a brief detour into nonfiction and a brief detour into some really boring books. Life After Life has a fascinating premise.  This is the story of Ursula Todd’s life, or, more accurately, her many lives.  Each time Ursula dies, she is reincarnated back into her own body, and generally lives a bit longer each time.  Her powerful sense of de ja vu helps her slowly re-correct the course of her life until she finally completes the act she was destined to do.

What’s intrigued me most about the novel was figuring out which life was best for Ursula.  In some of her lives, the tragedies that befall her or the way she dies is so painful, and she seems so unfulfilled, that you’re anxiously turning the pages until she dies, hoping for some relief from the life that has unfolded.  In some lives, her relationships with her family suffer until she’s barely connected to them. In some, her friendships suffer. In some, she finds love, and romance, while in others she ends up alone.

Whichever life you choose depends on what your values are, I suppose. But in the end – you have to wonder the best life was the one in which she fulfills her destiny, or if she was happier when she was fulfilled in other ways. And most importantly, all of her lives feel real – she makes the choices available to a young woman living through WWI and WWI.

My only caveat? Continue reading

Book Review 16: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

22 Feb

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was fascinating because it read like a classic novel, except modern. The story focuses on the Belsey family, an interracial family living in a small town centered around a liberal arts college just outside of Boston. Howard, the white, hyper intellectual, almost unfeeling patriarch married his intelligent, political, passionate African American wife Kiki and gave birth to three children, struggling to find their place in the word. The story spirals out to include the Kipps, the family of Howard’s academic rival. As the Belsey increasingly interact with the Kipps, they slowly fall to pieces. Watching them crumble really highlights the pressures and constructs placed on individuals by gender, race and intelligence.

It’s modern because it acknowledges technology exists. Cell phones. Emails. Googling. It’s surprisingly rare to see a novel that squarely fits into the literature category acknowledge that technology is pervasive in our lives. And that it shapes our interactions. It wasn’t fully integrated into the novel, not at all. But it was there, and it struct me as notable because I so rarely read a modern novel that receives this type of literary attention that acknowledges that times have changed. Continue reading

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