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This installment: stories set in the Northwest; a memoir rooted in Alaska; three sisters at odds; a magical Gaiman tale; a very Jewish novel; and one that straddles Ghana and the States.

 

  We Live In Water: Stories  by Jess Walter

 

Short stories, mostly about losers. Stripped down style which suits the material. The first about a con who gets conned woke me up like a light slap. Another about a fruitless search for a buddy’s stepsister gone astray in Las Vegas. Mostly Pacific Northwest settings, the undersides of Portland , Seattle, and the author’s home town, Spokane. Bracing, atmospheric, masculine. Glints of humor too.

 

   Still Points North by Leigh Newman

 

Subtitled One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home. Father’s a doctor who loves the outdoors, perilous adventures et al.  Mother, from Baltimore, doesn’t and after 6 years or so decamps.  Little Leigh is torn between life styles and parents; she loves them both but the Alaska imprinting really took. This translates into a peripatetic, unattached life down the line, working for a travel magazine.  A guy comes along, though, and after lots of back and forthing on her part, hangs in there. This is the best kind of memoir, in my book—she’s charming, candid, brave and thoughtful . I rooted for her all the way. (Some of the same exhilaration I felt reading Wild.) Highly recommended.

 

   The Pretty One: a novel about sisters by Lucinda Rosenfeld

 

Three sisters at odds, given classical names by their scholarly parents . Imperia (Perri) is the most conventional, with 3 children in the suburbs.  Olympia (Pia) has a marginal job in a gallery and a test-tube child, Lola. Gus, a lesbian lawyer, is having relationship troubles.  Their roles were pre-ordained (Pia, for instance, the eponymous pretty one) but are getting jumbled by life stresses.  Their mother has an accident, the daughters are dragged in to help, and each undergoes an uncomfortable turning point and strong sense of betrayal. A deus ex machine in the form of an surprise half-sister brings them back together. Quite a story, told with wit. NYC setting.

 

   Stardust by Neil Gaiman

 

I was drawn to this book because it looked so old and indeed Gaiman requested a design that would harken back to the ‘20s. A fairy tale of sorts set in Dickensian times. Wall is a town on the outskirts of a forest. On the other side of the namesake structure is a dangerous enchanted land and only once a year can mortals take a peek and do some trading.  A lad, Tristran, falls in love with the local beauty and she meanly says she’ll consider him if he returns with the falling star they both witnessed.  So off he goes and has adventures galore.  He actually finds the star, in miserable human form, rescues her, and finds his true identity and true love along the way. Charming and whimsical, with lively characterizations .(It was made into a movie  and I’ll have to check that out.)

 

   The Tin Horse by Janice Steinberg

 

The novel starts with an old woman’s memories, sparked by a move and aided by an eager young academic who senses a treasure trove of historical material as he helps her pack up.  Elaine had a long career as a lawyer specializing in social justice.  Her twin sister Barbara disappeared six decades ago but now it might be time to track her down.  Barbara was a wild, rebellious girl, a dancer.  After she left, what little joy existed in that tense family went with her. Tacking back and forth, we gradually learn of their grandmother’s precipitous journey from Romania and all the family history that was covered up.  Living a lie tends to distort that which follows and this certainly plays a part in Barbara’s behavior. This is a very Jewish book, tasty as a tsimmes, and an engrossing multigenerational story.

 

   Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

 

The Sais family has not remained in close touch.  Their surgeon father decamped back to Ghana abruptly after being unjustly fired from his job in the states.  But now he’s dead and the siblings and their mother are summonsed and gather with all sorts of loaded unfinished business. Olu, the oldest, is also a surgeon with a wife of 15 years he’s never introduced to the family.  Twins Taiwo and Kehinde, once very close, experienced a traumatic episode that flung them apart, and Sadie, the youngest, resents being thought of as “the baby.”  The novel has a dream-like, impressionistic quality that initially left me wondering and sometimes confused, but I stuck with it because the writing was so compelling and I was intrigued.  Somewhere along the way I started to feel at home even if I couldn’t track everything, and by the end it all made sense. Local color, strong emotions, rich cultural material.

 

Back next Monday

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