This installment: a doomed marriage (f); back to the land with dysfunctional dad (nf); a complicated book on CD with great accents (f); a contemporary astronomical fairy tale (f); Ng’s novel (f); and writing used for a dubious task (f). Note: more reviews from 2014.
The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones
The book starts with the protagonist’s weak moment (a spontaneous proposal), and then poor Wilfred is locked into a loveless marriage. If he spoke his mind (and heart), his livelihood and reputation would be shot. At home is widowed Da, a gravedigger, who’d also be left disenfranchised. At last Wilfred gathers up his courage and claims his true love—whew. Setting: Wales in the mid 1920’s. Full of atmosphere and modest charm.
Gone Feral by Novella Carpenter
Subtitled Tracking My Dad Through the Wild. Carpenter came through a rough childhood in the West but found her own way, as laid out in her delightful Farm City. She needed to know more about her absent dad, elusive and frail, to settle some deep questions. We learn of her back to the land poverty in Idaho as she revisits her past and finally makes an uneasy peace with the old galoot. Lively narrative.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
I listened to this on CD and was both intrigued and initially confused. In one chapter, Tooley’s a little girl in Bangkok. In the next she’s a brash young woman in Brooklyn. Then she’s a bookseller in rural Wales. And who are chilly-sounding Paul, outrageous old Humphrey with his rich Russian accent, seductive but slippery Sarah, and elusive, quietly powerful Ven? All members of her blood or acquired family, we discover down the line. As the action ricochets around the world, mysteries are eventually revealed—a treat. Lots of accents here: the narrator is English but many of the characters are American and it’s a little dizzying to hear the same actor do them all. But oh, that Slavic voice—as rich as good borscht.
How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer
A contemporary fairy tale with astronomy at its core. Two babies are pledged to each other at birth, but their mothers have a falling out and the scheme appears moribund. George already has a strange, beautiful girlfriend and Irene lives with peculiar Belion. But when Irene is lured to the prestigious Ohio Institute, she immediately eclipses George who’s already working there. Missteps abound before the two finally embrace their conjoined fate. Dark matter indeed, erudite and playful in turn. And who knew about Toledo’s charms—all those bridges?
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
The theme of this family tragedy is enclosed in a knot of racism and parental ambition. We know Lydia is dead from the first sentence. She’s the favorite daughter, groomed to excel academically. Her Chinese American father is a professor; her white mother had big plans but got pregnant instead. Brother Nathan has dreams of flight but is ignored, as is younger sister Hannah. In the ‘70s in Ohio, all her siblings feel “other.” And what role does the next-door neighbor Jack play? (He has the reputation of being a serial seducer.) Before this broken family is reconstituted, they have to face some hard truths. Powerful and sad.
A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman
Slava works for a prestigious magazine as a researcher but is waiting to be discovered as a writer. His immigrant grandfather harnesses Slava’s talent to create a Holocaust history so he can be eligible for reparations from the German government. Neighbors catch on and request Slava’s services as well, placing him in an ethical and legal bind, but what can he do– it’s guilt one way or the other? A nifty last-minute solution and an absurd, touching journey before it arrives.
Back next week.