Thursday 28 February 2019

The Two-Family House

The Two-family House
The Two-Family House
By Lynda Cohen Loigman

It’s 1947, and Brooklyn housewives Helen and Rose share many things.  Married to brothers Abe and Mort, the two women are friends and confidantes.  Both families even live in the same house – Abe, Helen and their four boys live upstairs, while Rose, Mort and their three girls live downstairs.  When Helen and Rose discover they are both pregnant at the same time, they are thrilled.

But the two brothers couldn’t be more different.  Abe is big-hearted and gregarious, always showing his family affection and love.  Mort is sullen and bitter, and blames Rose for not giving him a son.

As the pregnancies progress, Helen finds herself wishing for a daughter – someone who would eventually share thoughts and feelings with her.  She doesn’t see this happening with her rambunctious boys.

Rose, however, finds herself desperate for a boy.  She feels that having a son is the only way to win back her husband’s favour.  Her anxiety level grows higher with each passing day.

One winter night, with both men out of town, a blizzard strikes their Brooklyn home.  Both women go into labour.  Streets are impassable and the ambulance will not come.  Helen and Rose contact a local midwife.  With the older children minding the younger ones upstairs, two babies are born.

That night, something changes between Helen and Rose.  Although the two women share a deeper bond than ever, Rose begins to pull away from Helen.  Helen’s daughter, Natalie and Rose’s son, Teddy, are joyous additions to the family.  Natalie and Teddy, in fact, become close friends.  But Rose’s unhappiness is palpable and manifests itself through neglect of her children and her relationships.  Over time, her children become alienated from her, often preferring Helen’s company.  The two-family honeymoon is over.

Time goes on and the families drift apart.  Luckily, Teddy and Natalie continue their friendship and link the families together.  Only Judith, Rose’s eldest daughter, is old enough to remember her mother as she once was and the happy days of family solidarity.  Judith always wonders, what triggered this divide?

Can family secrets be maintained forever?  Should they be?  As the children become adults, the two women at the heart of each family must decide.

Told from the perspective of different family members, The Two-Family House spans a generation.  Poignant and readable, this family saga examines both sorrows and regrets, and the love shared over many years.

Thursday 21 February 2019


Image result for unsheltered

By Barbara Kingsolver

Things have not been going well for the Knox family. Willa, a middle aged journalist, has been let go from her job, right after her husband lost his teaching job. Her gravely ill father in law has been put into their care, their 26 year old daughter has moved back home, and they just found out their golden boy son is moving back in as well, with an unplanned one month old baby. Good thing Willa just inherited a brick home in Vineland, New Jersey.  With the whole family settled in their new home, unfortunately, their lives do not get better. The old home they’ve inherited was built without a foundation and is literally crumbling around them.  Willa did everything expected of her:  post-secondary, career, marriage, kids… so how did she get to middle age with nothing to show for it?

Hoping to apply for a heritage grant to repair her new home, Willa begins researching her home’s past.  As Willa gets immersed in the lives of the people who might have lived in her house, the story begins alternating perspectives from Willa’s life in 2016, to the life of a science teacher from the 1880s named Thatcher Greenwood.  

Thatcher forms a friendship with the famous naturalist, Mary Treat, a friend of Charles Darwin and Asa Gray.  Mary Treat clearly has a vast intellect and a curiosity about the natural world that is both infectious and intriguing. Discussions about Venus fly traps, nesting habits of local spiders, and cultural dynamics of ants were oddly engrossing.

Both stories tangle with each other nicely.  Both Thatcher and Willa lived in a time of cultural shifts; experiencing their interaction with this change was very interesting. At times I was more eager for Thatcher’s story than Willa’s, but then something would happen in Willa’s story that had me desperate to get back to 2016!  

Unsheltered reminded me of the novel Commonwealth by Ann Patchett because of the jumping timeline. Parts of this book also made me think of the plight of the grandfather in Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. Both characters are clearly beholden to their families with very little control over their lives.

Wednesday 6 February 2019

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good
 by Kathleen Flinn

I don’t usually read a lot of non-fiction, especially memoirs and biographies, but this one was recommended to me so I thought I would give it a try. Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good is the story of the author’s childhood, family and the food they shared, the two often inextricably linked.  The book’s title is itself a memory of Flinn’s grandmother, who raised her own young family during the Depression.  Food wastage was not an option then so you had to eat that burnt toast which fortunately, according to Mom, made you sing good!

Kathleen Flinn grew up in the Midwestern US, and uses family members’ stories and her own memories to recount the life of the Flinns. From the pizza parlor her parents owned and operated, Grandpa Charles’ army recipe chili and Grandma Inez’s fluffy pancakes she ties family anecdotes to family history. 

Food was central to the household as new challenges and cross country adventures took place. Each stage of their lives was represented by the food in the fridge and the pantry. During the busy pizza parlor days, the restaurant menu which included large pizza pies made on metal garbage can lids fed everyone. Later on, life on the farm consisted of whatever they grew, hunted and canned. Finding 100’s of canning jars in the cellar, they set to work filling them with the farm’s bounty. In the later years, Flinn’s parents moved the family to the suburbs and a life of relative luxury away from the hard work of the farm. Being more financially secure, her parents began living a different life than that the kids had been used to, they threw parties, they went out, they stocked the shelves with store bought food! This in itself was an adjustment, having longed for these treats while on the farm, the kids now found themselves wishing for mom’s homemade fried chicken.

Throughout each move, the kids never once doubted that they were loved. Not always the best communicators, the family spoke through food. In the words of Grandma Inez “I don’t have to tell you I love you. I fed you pancakes.” 

Flinn’s tasty memories will pique your interest, and you can make most of them yourself from the recipes included amongst the chapters.

Every Note Played

Every Note Played - Genova, Lisa
 by Lisa Genova

Every Note Played is the latest novel from Lisa Genova, neuroscientist turned bestselling author of titles such as Still Alice and Love, Anthony, stories that deal with early onset Alzheimer’s and parental loss and grief.  This latest gem goes inside ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, as we follow the decline of Richard who has been recently diagnosed with the illness. 

Richard is a renowned concert pianist and this diagnosis signals the end of his career and life as he knows it. His career defines him; it is his life, his reason for living. We meet Richard living with the loss of his right hand, the cancellation of his upcoming tour and his attempts at finding left-hand piano pieces. While mostly in denial about the progression of the disease, he knows it is only a matter of time before his left hand will also become paralyzed. As the disease moves through his body, he will have to come to grips with his loss of the piano, his livelihood and the ability to care for himself.

Karina is Richard’s ex-wife. It has been three years since Richard moved out, but she dwells on the past and has not moved on with her life. She blames Richard for the life she has, having given up on becoming a successful concert pianist in her own right, to support him in his career. She spends her days teaching piano and hiding behind the blame instead of pursuing her dream.

As Richard’s disease advances, Karina becomes his caregiver, eventually moving him back into their family home. Their sharing of the same home again brings up many of the past conflicts that neither of them has resolved. Richard’s deteriorating health becomes a ticking clock for Karina and Richard to reconcile the past before it is too late.

This story delves into the human side of ALS and how it affects those afflicted, not only the disease ridden Richard, but those around him who care for and about him. As a neuroscientist, Genova has a deep knowledge of the things she writes about. She creates real characters in real situations and does not gloss over the nasty bits. Whether you love them or hate them, the reader genuinely feels for the characters and is right there with them as they deal with their lot.



 Wildwood by Elinor Florence

Wildwood, by Elinor Florence is the story of Molly Bannister, a single mother struggling to make ends meet and to provide for her young daughter, Bridget, who needs special care. Out of the blue she receives word that her great aunt has willed her a cabin in remote northern Alberta. Currently living in Arizona with few options, Molly goes to Juniper, Alberta to give the rural life a shot. The cabin comes with a stipulation that it will be Molly’s only once she has lived there for one year. Molly plans to stick it out for the year, and then sell the cabin and resume her life in Arizona. 

Arriving at the cabin, she finds it is in pretty good condition, having been watched over by the neighbours since her aunt moved into care. The place is in need of a good clean, which is a bit of challenge because the place is completely off the grid: no running water, electricity, or phone; the closest neighbour is a few miles away.

Molly, a true city girl, is fortunate to have the early support of those who live in Juniper as she gets herself set up for a year of rustic living. She quickly learns to cook, launder and sew in the pioneer way to provide for herself and Bridget.

As each month goes by, Molly counts down the days and wonders if she has made the right choice. Molly finds and begins to read her great aunt’s old journal and the novel continues in alternating chapters between Molly’s present day struggles and those of her great aunt so many years ago. The entries outlining the early days of homesteading the land on which Molly and Bridget now live, help Molly to get through the days of isolation. She finds strength both from the journal and from her daily challenges, growing to appreciate the gifts of nature, just as her aunt once did.  

This is not an action packed story, instead more of a sentimental tale of survival and finding out who you really are; one in which you may find that what you’re looking for has been there all along. If you like tales that have an element of nature and intertwine the past and the present, this is a must read for you.