Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Just Jennifer

Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island by Regina Calcaterra (William Morrow, August 2013)
Regina Calcaterra is a well-respected attorney in New York and was part of the response team for New York City immediately after Superstorm Sandy.  She has worked hard lobbying for social justice on the national and local levels, and is a board member of You Gotta Believe, an organization that works toward finding older children in the foster care system permanent home situations.  To read this story of a young girl who fought to keep herself above water and her younger siblings from harm makes her life, achievements and passions even that more amazing.  Regina, along with two older sisters and a younger brother and sister moved from house to trailer to apartment with their addicted and abusive mother Cookie.  Her eldest sister is married when Regina starts her story and her next oldest sister tells Regina it is time for her to take over and moves in with a friend from school for the summer.  Knowing the worst thing that can happen is for Child Services to find out about the remaining three siblings, Regina tries hard the summer she is thirteen to provide food, a relatively clean place to live and comfort for her younger siblings after their mother abandons them in a house on Long Island, doing whatever she feels necessary to keep the remaining family together.  When Cookie returns and beats Regina beyond recognition, a teacher in the school finally steps in and Regina and her older sister are sent to one home, her brother and sister to another.  Thinking that emancipating herself will save her brother and sister, Regina does just that, only to have Cookie find out, become enraged and take the children to live with her in Idaho.  Over the next few years, Regina fights for good grades in school, earns a spot on the gymnastics team but never gives up trying to save Norman and Rosie from her mother.  She also reaches out to the father she never knew and is rebuffed and tries, as she nears adulthood, to learn why her mother hated her most of all the children, hoping she will be able to heal from the abusive relationship, knowing they will never be able to have a healthy one.  That any of the children survived this life as well as they each seem to have is remarkable, that Regina was able to rise above it, educate herself and put herself in a position where she was able to help others from a similar fate is nothing short of remarkable.

Just Jennifer

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition (IT Books, October 2013)
For almost fifty years (December 1965), the animated special A Charlie Brown Christmas has been considered the start of the holiday season by millions of people.  On one December night in 1969, Radio City Music Hall was showing a Peanuts movie, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, was playing to a sold out crowd on Broadway and millions more Americans were snuggled up at home watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on television.  This book provides a behind the scenes look at one of the world’s most beloved holiday traditions.  From animation art to the familiar score to production notes, this book is full of everything we love most about Peanuts and Charles Schultz. Interviews with Executive Producer Lee Mendelson and quotes from the late Charles Schultz will make this book and the making of this timeless special person.  Each time you pick up this book you will discover something familiar, but also something new.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Just Jennifer

Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen (Viking, February 2014)

Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie fall into two camps: purists whose only accepted deviation from the beloved series of books is the television series.  Don’t even mention to them the idea that Laura’s daughter rose not only edited the fictionalized account of her mother’s life, but reshaped it, in effect rewriting her family history.  The other end of the spectrum (where I fall) are the readers who cannot get enough of the rugged pioneer life; bring on the legends, the myths and what-ifs: the more that is available to feed our obsession and imagination, the better.  Bich Minh (Beth) Nguyen has done just that in her novel Pioneer Girl.  Lee Lein has finished her PhD but cannot seem to get her academic career off the ground and so returns to her family and their restaurant in the suburbs of Chicago.  Lee finds the adage “you can never go home again” applies to her family as she and her strong-willed mother face the same arguments never resolved when Lee left for college; she sees herself as an adult returned home temporarily whereas her mother feels as the daughter it is Lee’s duty to return to help the family.  Lee’s brother also picks this time to briefly return home, leaving in his wake more turmoil and uncertainty for Lee, but also leaving a gold brooch Lee had almost forgotten.  Lee’s grandfather ran a café in Saigon in the 1960’s;  in 1965, an American reporter named Rose frequented the café and left a gold brooch that in Lee’s mind bears a striking resemblance to the pin Almanzo Wilder gave Laura the Christmas they were engaged in These Happy Golden Years.  An academic and researcher to the core, Lee travels to Iowa where Rose Wilder Lane’s papers are stored looking for proof that she is right; what she finds is a puzzling poem and a letter that set her zigzagging across the prairie and to San Francisco, following a trail that if she can verify what she hopes to will not only change her life and that of a stranger’s, but could possibly alter the history of America’s most famous pioneer families.

With a light hand, Nguyen weaves the history of Lee’s family into the story of Lee’s quest.  As the first generation American born daughter of a proud, traditional Vietnamese woman, Lee must struggle with the cultural values of her youth and her desire to make the most she-and her family- can of the American dream.  Lee’s family story traces a similar path as the Ingalls and Wilders did, moving from location to location, searching for work and a better life, though this is all done very subtly.  Lee’s search for the story of the brooch takes her not only into the past, but into the future, her future, as she learns to live for herself while still being part of the family she holds dear.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Just Jennifer

Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu (William Morrow, September 2013)

This twist on the traditional English cozy takes readers to Singapore where they will meet Rosie Lee, a rich widow who has built a culinary empire at Aunty Lee’s Delights, a restaurant where she hopes to nourish both the bodies and souls of locals and tourists with her spicy fare.  Trying to help her step-son Mark build his wine importing business, she has created a series of wine dinners which attract an eclectic group of people.  One of the guests who often assists at the dinners, Laura Kwee, doesn’t show up one evening, making Aunty Lee concerned there might be a connection between the young woman not showing up and the body of a young woman that washed up on the beach that morning.  A young American woman arrives that evening at Aunty Lee’s looking for Laura Kwee’s friend Marianne who has also seemingly disappeared, making Aunty Lee even more certain that Laura Kwee, and perhaps Marianne, have become victims of foul play.  Once involved with the police, Aunty Lee finds that as part of the community, she wants to help the police locate the two young women and sole a murder---or at least make sure the investigators and the victims’ families are well-fed.

Singapore, with its combination of British and Chinese tradition and culture makes the perfect setting for a cozy mystery.  Filled with quirky characters---led by Aunty Lee, and an exotic setting, this first mystery by playwright Ovidia Yu is a delight for all the senses.

Just Jennifer

The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese Doubleday, October 29, 2013)

Pat Conroy is known to most as the author of best-selling novels such as Beach Music and The Prince of Tides as well as the semi-autobiographical novel The Great Santini; he is also a son and the eldest child of an abusive, dysfunctional family.  This is the memoir not only of Conroy’s journey through life but of his relationship to his mother, siblings and most importantly to his father.  Donald Patrick Conroy was a Marine fighter pilot who flew missions during World War II and Korea.  In his private life, Don Conroy was abusive and violent toward his wife and children, physically and emotionally.  Pat and his six brothers and sisters were raised in different military housing throughout the South (from where his mother came) and were, for the most part, estranged from his father’s Chicago family.  As Pat grows up, he tries to protect his family from his father’s brutal beatings and hateful outbursts, but at the same time he never seems to completely give up on his father, though it is often more out of a sense of familial responsibility and duty than an actual hope that his father will ever change.

When The Great Santini was published it caused such a rift with the entire family, it seemed unlikely that any of the family would ever have any sort of relationship with Pat again.  Strangely enough, the book-and later the movie (which coincided with the Conroy’s divorce) had the opposite effect on Santini (Conroy’s nickname from the Marines) as the two come to some sort of understanding and an uneasy truce.  Pat’s steadfast love for his family and the family for which he so desperately hoped is deconstructed through fear and hate and slowly, though never completely, rebuilt, reminding everyone, no matter how imperfect we may be, we are still family.