Review of Minding Frankie, by Maeve Binchy

Minding Frankie

by Maeve Binchy

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011. 383 pages.
Starred Review

Maeve Binchy’s books always end up keeping me reading until the small hours of the morning. Why, oh why, didn’t I know better than to start reading this book late at night, thinking I could stop after only one chapter? It’s not that the plot is exciting or action-packed, but you definitely get to caring about these people and want to find out what happens to them.

I do love the way she brings characters we’ve already seen in her other books. You don’t by any means have to have read the other books, but you have the sense that these are old friends. Everybody has a story in Maeve Binchy’s books, and in each book she focuses on a set of intertwined lives and the beautiful way they get through.

Minding Frankie is about the birth of a little girl.

Josie and Charles Lynch live in 23 St. Jarlath’s Crescent with their son Noel. They had always hoped Noel would be a priest, and set aside money early on for that purpose. Noel, however, was definitely not interested.

“Not so definite, however, was what he actually would like to do. Noel was vague about this, except to say he might like to run an office. Not work in an office, but run one. He showed no interest in studying office management or bookkeeping or accounting or in any areas where the careers department tried to direct him. He liked art, he said, but he didn’t want to paint. If pushed, he would say that he liked looking at paintings and thinking about them. He was good at drawing; he always had a notebook and a pencil with him and he was often to be found curled up in a corner sketching a face or an animal. This did not, of course, lead to any career path, but Noel had never expected it to. He did his homework at the kitchen table, sighing now and then, but rarely ever excited or enthusiastic. At the parent-teacher meetings Josie and Charles had inquired about this. They wondered, Does anything at school fire him up? Anything at all?”

Later, Noel got an office job instead of continuing his schooling.

“He met his work colleagues but without any great enthusiasm. They would not be his friends and companions any more than his fellow students at the Brothers had become mates. He didn’t want to be alone all the time, but it was often easier….

“He took to coming home later and later. He also took to visiting Casey’s pub on the journey home — a big barn of a place, both comforting and anonymous at the same time. It was familiar because everyone knew his name.”

Meanwhile, Noel’s parents aren’t sure what to do with the money they had saved to train Noel for the priesthood. And then Charles Lynch is told they don’t want him at his job any longer.

Into this home comes a woman from America, Charles Lynch’s niece Emily. Emily’s father moved to America years ago, and never kept in touch with his family. The family isn’t sure what to expect, but Emily is the sort of person who changes people’s lives by getting to know who they truly are.

She helps Charles and Josie realize what they really want to do is build a statue to St. Jarlath. And she helps Noel realize that he’s an alcoholic and needs help.

But then Noel gets a life-changing phone call. A woman he knew once and spent a drinking weekend with wants him to visit her in the hospital. She tells him she’s pregnant, and he’s the father. And she’s about to die of cancer.

So the book is about Noel trying to get his life together and be a father. The social worker assigned to his case doesn’t think he can do it. But thanks to Emily, there is a community of people around St. Jarlath’s Crescent who care and who help him with minding the little girl, Frankie.

That description doesn’t sound like a book that would keep me up reading through the night. But Maeve Binchy’s books are about Community. The characters are quirky, and some are powerfully flawed, but as we watch them working together, helping each other, working out problems, making mistakes, being wonderfully kind, we get hooked into their stories.

Another uplifting and life-affirming book by Maeve Binchy. I highly recommend getting to know the wonderful people who live in her books.

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Review of Baking Cakes in Kigali, by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali

by Gaile Parkin

Atlantic Books, London, 2009. 361 pages.
Starred Review

This enjoyable yet surprisingly deep book reminded me of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. Both books are set in Africa, though this one in war-torn Rwanda instead of peaceful Botswana. But in both books, the main character’s profession lets her get to know people from a wide variety of backgrounds and help solve their problems and bring people together. Precious Ramotswe is a detective, but the protagonist of this book, Angel Tungaraza, bakes cakes.

We learn quickly that baking cakes in Kigali is a much more artistic endeavor than baking cakes in America:

“In the same way that a bucket of water reduces a cooking fire to ashes — a few splutters of shocked disbelief, a hiss of anger, and then a chill all the more penetrating for having so abruptly supplanted intense heat — in just that way, the photograph that she now surveyed extinguished all her excitement.

“‘Exactly like this?’ she asked her guest, trying to keep any hint of regret or condemnation out of her voice.

“‘Exactly like that,’ came the reply, and the damp chill of disappointment seeped into her heart….

“‘As you know, Angel,’ the ambassador’s wife was saying, ‘it’s traditional to celebrate a silver wedding anniversary with a cake just like the original wedding cake. Amos and I feel it’s so important to follow our traditions, especially when we’re away from home.’

“‘That is true, Mrs Ambassador,’ agreed Angel, who was herself away from home. But as she examined the photograph, she was doubtful of the couple’s claim to the traditions that they had embraced when choosing this cake twenty-five years ago. It was not like any traditional wedding cake she had seen in her home town of Bukoba in the west of Tanzania or in Dar es Salaam in the east. No, this cake was traditional to Wazungu, white people. It was completely white: white with white patterns decorating the white. Small white flowers with white leaves encircled the outer edges of the upper surface, and three white pillars on top of the cake held aloft another white cake that was a smaller replica of the one below. It was, quite simply, the most unattractive cake that she had ever seen. Of course, Mr and Mrs Wanyika had married at a time when the style of Wazungu was still thought to be fashionable — prestigious, even. But by now, in the year 2000, surely everybody had come to recognize that Wazungu were not the authorities on style and taste that they were once thought to be? Perhaps if she showed Mrs Wanyika the pictures of the wedding cakes that she had made for other people, she would be able to convince her of the beauty that colours could bring to a cake.”

Angel and her husband are from Tanzania. They lost both their adult children to AIDS, and now must take care of their five grandchildren.

“It’s only that we won’t be able to provide for these children as well as we did for our first children. But we must try by all means to give them a good life. That’s why we decided to leave Tanzania and come here to Rwanda. There’s aid money for the university and they’re paying Pius so much more as a Special Consultant than he was getting at the university in Dar. Okay, Rwanda has suffered a terrible thing. Terrible, Mrs Ambassador; bad, bad, bad. Many of hearts here are filled with pain. Many of the eyes here have seen terrible things. Terrible! But many of those same hearts are now brave enough to hope, and many of those same eyes have begun to look towards the future instead of the past. Life is going on, everyday. And for us the pluses of coming here are many more than the minuses. And my cake business is doing well because there are almost no shops here that sell cakes. A cake business doesn’t do well in a place where people have nothing to celebrate.”

Although Angel herself is dealing with some heavy losses, and so are the people around her, she is able to touch people’s lives — from convincing a mother to give her daughter a better name than Goodenough to providing family for a couple getting married who have lost all of their own families. This is an uplifting book and provides enjoyable and interesting reading.

One fun note: I was watching the DVD series of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which is filmed in Africa, and the first episode happened to have someone selling cakes. I noticed happily that those cakes were indeed far fancier and more colorful than cakes I’d see in America. So apparently I’ve learned something true about baking cakes in Kigali.

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Review of The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain

by Garth Stein

Harper, 2008. 321 pages.
Starred Review

I fully meant to read this book when it first came out, and I’m sure I had it checked out, but somehow it never made it to the top of the pile. So when the Fairfax County Public Library chose it for the 2010 All Fairfax Reads book, I decided it was high time to read it, and to make sure it was on the top of the pile, since with plenty of holds, I wouldn’t be able to renew it. I ended up reading it in two nights, and just loved it. I wish I’d read it sooner.

A friend of mine said she didn’t want to read it because she heard the dog dies in the end. That’s true, but you know that’s what he wants from the very first few pages, so it didn’t make me sad.

Here’s how Enzo, the dog telling the story, puts it, right at the beginning:

“I’m old. And while I’m very capable of getting older, that’s not the way I want to go out…. I don’t want to be kept alive. Because I know what’s next. I’ve seen it on TV. A documentary I saw about Mongolia, of all places. It was the best thing I’ve ever seen on television, other than the 1993 Grand Prix of Europe, of course, the greatest automobile race of all time in which Ayrton Senna proved himself to be a genius in the rain. After the 1993 Grand Prix, the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV is a documentary that explained everything to me, made it all clear, told the whole truth: when a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man.

“I’ve always felt almost human. I’ve always known that there’s something about me that’s different than other dogs. Sure, I’m stuffed into a dog’s body, but that’s just the shell. It’s what’s inside that’s important. The soul. And my soul is very human.

“I am ready to become a man now, though I realize I will lose all that I have been. All of my memories, all of my experiences. I would like to take them with me into my next life — there is so much I have gone through with the Swift family — but I have little say in the matter. What can I do but force myself to remember?”

Enzo then tells us the story of his life with the Swift family. Denny Swift, a race car driver, particularly good at racing in the rain, picked Enzo out from a pile of puppies at a farm.

Enzo was Denny’s companion. They studied racing videos together. Enzo was there when Denny fell in love, got married, and had a daughter. Then he was there when Denny’s wife got sick. He saw all that Denny went through, and wished he could tell what he’d seen and make things right.

The story is beautifully told and so touching. Enzo loves these people and does all he can to help them through an extremely difficult time.

The unusual perspective of the dog narrator never seems like a gimmick. Instead, it’s all the more poignant because Enzo sees injustice, but suffers from the lack of a tongue made for speaking and opposable thumbs.

I got to hear Garth Stein speak at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University on September 19th. He was a very entertaining speaker, and fun to look at, too!

When he talked about how he got the idea for this book, he revealed that he actually saw a video where it explained that in Mongolia, there is a belief that dogs are on their way to reincarnating as humans. He also told about how much trouble he had getting the book published. His agent said that he couldn’t possibly sell a book narrated by a dog, so he fired his agent. But then he couldn’t find anyone who thought differently — until he met an author who had written a book narrated by a crow! That author’s agent loved the book!

And I have to admit, if you just say it’s a book narrated by a dog, it sounds like a gimmick. But this is pulled off beautifully. Garth Stein treated Enzo as a human soul with limitations — He could only speak with gestures, and he couldn’t manipulate things with his paws. But he had a great heart and saw Denny going through the fire but emerging victorious.

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Review of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

by Helen Simonson

Random House, New York, 2010. 358 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a gentle love story, which reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s books like La’s Orchestra Saves the World, or maybe The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Though the story is completely different, the tone is similar, with nice, calm people going about their everyday lives while confronted with problems, and quietly falling in love along the way.

The book opens on the morning when the retired Major Pettigrew has learned that his younger brother is dead:

“Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother’s wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking. On the damp bricks of the path stood Mrs. Ali from the village shop. She gave only the faintest of starts, the merest arch of an eyebrow. A quick rush of embarrassment flooded to the Major’s cheeks and he smoothed helplessly at the lap of his crimson, clematis-covered housecoat with hands that felt like spades.”

Major Pettigrew’s wife died only six years before, and Mrs. Ali’s husband died the previous year, so they understand each other’s grief and little rituals, like occasionally wearing his wife’s favorite housecoat. They gradually discover they have some other interests in common, including a shared love of books.

Mrs. Ali’s Pakistani family does not approve that her husband left the shop to her and that she is continuing to run it. They are pressuring her to live with her husband’s family now that he is gone.

Meanwhile, Major Pettigrew goes to his brother’s funeral. He is appalled when he learns that his brother did not leave him the second of his father’s fine guns, a gift from an Indian maharajah. Their father had given them each one gun to remember him by, asking that the pair be reunited eventually to pass on further in the family. Major Pettigrew left explicit directions in his will to leave his gun to his brother, if he died first, but it appears that his brother did not return the favor. And his brother’s wife, their daughter, and even the Major’s own son all want him to sell the pair, more valuable together, and they each have plans for what to do with the money.

There was a point toward the beginning of this book when I got annoyed by how no one in Major Pettigrew’s life was very nice at all, except Mrs. Ali. His son is a social climber with a new American fiance, and he seems to think his father is there to fulfill his whims. The local village ladies have their own ideas on who the major should marry. They are planning an elaborate party at his club and rope him in to getting involved, while coming across as interfering busybodies.

But the people did grow on me. Major Pettigrew moves through the uproar of circumstances with dignity and humor. I began to see even glimmers of humanity in his ungrateful son.

Of course, the ladies of the village really get upset when they begin to realize how Major Pettigrew’s feelings for Mrs. Ali are blossoming. And her own family keeps pressuring her to leave the village. Can Major Pettigrew go against generations of tradition and find love with a Pakistani woman who is actually (shudder) in trade?

Here is an exchange I enjoyed between the Major and Mrs. Ali’s nephew about the nephew’s love life:

“I’m only joking,” said Abdul Wahid. “You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care — and humility.” He finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. “But I must ask you, do you really understand what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?”

“My dear boy,” said the Major. “Is there really any other kind?”

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Review of Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

Little Bee

by Chris Cleave

read by Anne Flosnik

Tantor Audio, 2009. 11 hours. 9 compact discs.
Starred Review.

This is not a cheery story. A few weeks earlier, I checked out the book on Hot Picks, but I saw it was going to have some awful scenes, so I decided not to read it. However, when I began listening to the audio version, I was utterly enchanted.

Two different characters take turns narrating the story. The first, Little Bee, is an illegal refugee to the United Kingdom from Africa. She takes up the tale to tell what happened when she was released from the Immigration Detention Center after two years. Her African accent is mesmerizing. Her way of looking at the world is captivating. Her images are delightful. Her story is terrible, but she has an inner light that shines in spite of all that happened to her.

Sarah is the other narrator. With her proper British accent, she tells what happened on the day Little Bee showed up at her house, the day of her husband Andrew’s funeral. She had met Little Bee two years before, on a beach in Nigeria, on a day that changed all their lives.

Now, in a suburb of London, Sarah is left with her four-year-old son who refuses to remove his Batman costume. Sarah has two, so one can be cleaned while he’s wearing the other. Little Charlie is so realistic, so funny, and so pathetic, as he represents all of them wearing a secret identity.

The two women tell their stories out of sequence, so by the time you find out what happened on the beach, you are completely enthralled, wanting desperately to know every detail. The storytelling is masterfully done, with wonderful images that make you look at life with a fresh perspective.

I have to admit that this book included one of the most horrible scenes I have ever imagined. It didn’t even end happily. But I loved the book. Anne Flosnik doing Little Bee’s voice completely won me over right from the start. Hearing the words with an African accent gave them much more power than when I tried to read the print version myself. I liked Little Bee right away, and wanted to hear her story.

This book has some tough issues, so it’s not for everyone. But it is superbly crafted, and I highly recommend it. Especially the audio version, which is exquisite.

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Review of The Interruption of Everything, by Terry McMillan

The Interruption of Everything

by Terry McMillan

Read by Desiree Taylor

Penguin Audio, 2005. Unabridged. 10 CDs, approximately 12 hours.
Starred Review.

A big thank you to my sister Wendy for giving me this audiobook. It’s another one I’ve been meaning to review for a very long time, but didn’t get around to because it wasn’t a library book, and so didn’t have a due date. I know I listened to it more than a year ago, because I remember I was the same age as the protagonist, forty-four years old. But what happened in the book is still vivid in my mind, even after all this time. Perhaps since I listened to it, and thus “read” it over a long period of time, it stuck in my mind all the longer.

Marilyn Grimes is 44 years old and begins going through almost every issue a woman can face in midlife. She and her husband are growing apart, and she thinks he might be straying. She’d like to go back to school and pursue some old dreams, now that her kids are grown. But she still seems to be looking after everyone else.

Her mother’s mind seems to be drifting; her foster sister is in trouble with the law; her own hormones are doing strange things; her ex-husband comes back into her life; her husband goes to South America to “find himself.” Her daughter is expecting; her son gets into a ski accident; her mother-in-law, who lives with them, is finding romance. And that’s just part of it.

Honestly, before the end of the book, in my mind I was begging the author to have pity on poor Marilyn. But I needn’t have done so. Marilyn handles it all with humor and grace, and enough breakdowns and discouragement to still seem human. Her relationship with her two friends Paulette and Bunny adds laughter and perspective to her life as she navigates all the pitfalls of midlife and figures out what course she wants to set for the rest of her life.

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Review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

elegance_of_the_hedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Europa Editions, New York, 2008. 325 pages.
Original title: L’elegance du herisson, published in France in 2006.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Fiction

Two people live at number 7, rue de Grenelle, who are far more than what they seem. The building holds eight luxury apartments and their amenities. Paloma, on the fifth floor, is planning to burn theirs down and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday.

Why should a child with so many advantages and so much intelligence decide to end her life? Paloma explains:

“All our family acquaintances have followed the same path: their youth spent trying to make the most of their intelligence, squeezing their studies like a lemon to make sure they’d secure a spot among the elite, then the rest of their lives wondering with a flabbergasted look on their faces why all that hopefulness has led to such a vain existence. People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd. That might deprive you of a few good moments in your childhood but it would save you a considerable amount of time as an adult — not to mention the fact that you’d be spared at least one traumatic experience, i. e. the goldfish bowl….

“But one thing is sure — there’s no way I’m going to end up in the goldfish bowl. I’ve thought it through quite carefully. Even for someone like me who is super-smart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else, in fact superior to the vast majority — even for me life is already all plotted out and so dismal you could cry: no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.”

Meanwhile, the other surprising person in the building is Madame Michel, the humble concierge, who is determined never to give away to anyone in the building how brilliant she is.

“I conform so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.”

Since the image of the concierge is someone who lazily sits around and watches popular television shows, until her husband’s death, Madame Michel let him preserve that part of her image.

“With the advent of videocassettes and, subsequently, the DVD divinity, things changed radically, much to the enrichment of my happy hours. As it is not terribly common to come across a concierge waxing ecstatic over Death in Venice or to hear strains of Mahler wafting from her loge, I delved into my hard-earned conjugal savings and bought a second television set that I could operate in my hideaway. Thus, the television in the front room, guardian of my clandestine activities, could bleat away and I was no longer forced to listen to inane nonsense fit for the brain of a clam — I was in the back room, perfectly euphoric, my eyes filling with tears, in the miraculous presence of Art.”

Paloma and Madame Michel share the beginning of the book in parallel, still in complete ignorance of each other. Paloma is trying to record some Profound Thoughts before she leaves the world, but also decides to write a journal alongside that records “masterpieces of matter.” She’s looking for “Something incarnate, tangible. But beautiful and aesthetic at the same time.” The examples she comes up with are quite wonderful, and incidentally will make the reader look at some common things very differently than ever before.

The book gets off to a slow start as the two philosophize, and criticize the rich supposed intellectuals around them, living in their building. This book was probably not the best to choose to read in a doctor’s waiting room, which was where I started it. It was, however, a fabulous choice to curl up with in bed on a lazy afternoon with snow gently falling outside, which was where I finished it.

Then one of the residents dies, his apartment is sold, and a Japanese filmmaker moves in. This man, Monsieur Ozu, immediately detects the two particularly brilliant souls among his neighbors, despite their clever disguises. Paloma says about him:

“So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize people because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy. When my mother offers macaroons from Chez Laduree to Madame de Broglie, she is telling herself her own life story and just nibbling at her own flavor; when Papa drinks his coffee and reads his paper, he is contemplating his own reflection in the mirror, as if practicing the Coue method or something; when Colombe talks about Marian’s lectures, she is ranting about her own reflection; and when people walk by the concierge, all they see is a void, because she is not from their world.

“As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone.”

Monsieur Ozu is the one who tips these two extraordinary individuals off to each other. As Paloma begins to suspect Madame Michel, we discover where the title of the book came from:

“As for Madame Michel . . . how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her, when she would talk with Jean Arthens or when she talks to Neptune when Diane has her back turned, or when she looks at the ladies in the building who walk right by her without saying hello. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant.”

As Madame Michel’s cover begins to come down with Paloma and with their amazing new neighbor, things begin to change.

Here is a beautiful book, definitely for reading when you are in a philosophical state of mind. I can see why it has been popular with book clubs. I will say up front that I don’t like the ending, but it still didn’t ruin the book for me. The philosophy is not exactly cheery, but I did like all the meditations about beauty, and the things to love, in the end, about life.

This book makes me wish I could read French well enough to try it in the original language. The translation job must have been tricky, as Madame Michel’s appreciation for language, and her keen eye toward the way supposedly educated people misuse it, show us more of her brilliance. For example, Alison Anderson managed to translate a note with a misplaced comma into English. I wonder what the original was like, and if she was able to translate directly.

A book that will leave you thinking about it for a long time.

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