Why we took the car

From Jackie Cantwell
Author:  Wolfgang  Herrndorf
Title:  Why we took the car 
Destined to become a YA classic, this story features a 14 year-old boy, Mike Klingenberg, who could be Holden Caulfield?s German cousin. The book was translated from the German by Tim Mohr, and nothing was lost in the translation. Mike has a serious crush on pretty and popular Tatiana, and he’s awaiting an invitation to her birthday party that summer. Mike is just another disaffected Berlin youth, until he meets the mysterious Andre Tschichatschow (Tschick), a Russian immigrant, who comes to class drunk and disheveled.  When Tschick steals a car, Mike joins him without hesitation, to escape his unraveling family life. Mike considers himself boring, but Tshick disagrees, “You just have to do something to make yourself stand out.” Adults will like this book as much as teens. I still think about the characters, long after finishing the book. Enjoy the ride!

The Good Wife

From Elaine Pasquali
author: Buchan, Elizabeth
The Good Wife
The title of this book caught my eye because of its similarity to the title of the popular TV program, The Good Wife.  The similarities continues with the main characters: a career politician and straying husband (Will) and a wife (Fanny) who sacrifices her own passions and career to the demands of being a “good” wife and mother.  Further complicating Fanny’s life are her ambivalent feelings about her live-in alcoholic sister-in-law.  When Fanny’s father dies and her daughter leaves the nest, Fanny sets off on a journey of self-exploration and personal fulfillment.  Set in England and Italy, this book flows easily and seamlessly as it navigates themes of imperfect marriage, family dynamics, and midlife crisis.

A Box of Darkness: The Story of a Marriage

From Catherine Given
author: Brady, Sally Ryder
A Box of Darkness: The Story of a Marriage
When I heard that this book was in the same vein as Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”, I had to try it.  The two memoirs share many themes and are equally un-putdown-able.  In recounting the story of the Bradys’ lives, Brady smoothly carries us back and forth from her present-day fear and loneliness as a new widow, through her tumultuous 46-year marriage. Sally Ryder Brady’s intelligence shines through in a straightforward, easy style that rings true.  

As I blazed through A Box of Darkness, I felt that I was spending a weekend with a great new friend.   Like Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, the Brady’s were productive and distinguished writers.  Despite her husband Upton’s increasingly narcissistic and erratic behavior, Sally remains steady and calm.  She’s trapped by her love for a man so self-absorbed that he can only give the family negative attention.   She sticks it out with Brady, whom she calls her “Best Beloved,” but his alcoholism, unexplained disappearances and mercurial moods take a heavy toll. 

As they continue to socialize and conduct business individually and as a couple, they mix with famous people:  bicoastal writers, publishers, actors, producers, and restaurateurs.  Sally’s strength in the face of Brady’s mistreatment is all the more remarkable for her ability to retain her dignity and self-esteem  in these elite circles.

Like so many women of this era, Sally manages her large, active family’s life with vigor and grace, giving her children all she can, thinking little of her own needs.  When Upton dies at 76, she is simply bereft.  Worse, she soon uncovers troubling evidence of a secret life he was leading, and struggles to piece together who her “Best Beloved” really was.

The merry recluse: a life in essays

From Jackie Cantwell
author: Knapp, Caroline
The merry recluse: a life in essays 
This was published posthumously in 2004. The compiler is Sandra Shea, her former editor. The author died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 42.  Ms. Knapp was a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, an alternative newspaper, and her essays also appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Siren magazine, and New Woman magazine. She wrote honestly about her struggles and her innermost thoughts and feelings.  She admits to feelings of jealousy, anxiety, grief, loneliness and rage that many of us deny. Her essays about her obsessions and addictions are truly brave. In “A letter to my father”, she states “I’ve come to see drinking as a relationship, as full and rich and sensual and complex as the kind you have with the key people in your life, as the kind I had with you.  I loved drinking, for a long time. I loved it so much I could have died for it, literally.  But you died first and in many ways, I guess that spared me.  On some key level, you see, I couldn’t give up drinking until I’d given up you.”
      “Life without anesthesia” is about how exposed one feels after giving up an addiction.  In her case, she hid behind anorexia and alcoholism.  In conquering a food disorder and alcoholism, she was sometimes flooded with too many emotions, but also experienced an authentic life.  Ms. Knapp was also a fine social critic.  The piece entitled “Teddy Bear II” is about a case where a woman abandoned her father who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  She argues that we as a nation do a very poor job of caring for our elderly.  She could be funny, too.  How many of us can relate to spending inordinate sums of money to furnish our homes in “Notes on Nesting” I saw myself in “I hate money”: “I hate money.  I hate dealing with it, thinking about it, managing it, planning for it, and accounting for it. On the other hand, I don’t have too many problems spending it, which complicates matters considerably.” ” Bills? What bills? I don’t see any bills. Who’s Bill? Let’s talk about something else.” Some essays might appeal more to women.  In “Barbie does death”, Ms. Knapp states that “The big walk down the aisle  is allegedly something a girl starts dreaming about as soon as she’s old enough to dream”.  She did an informal poll of 15 of her friends, and only two had the wedding fantasy.  The majority fantasized about being rock stars or superheroes.  The title essay “The merry recluse” is about the joys of living alone, and how this flies in the face of societal expectations.  It would have been amazing to see what other issues she would have tackled, if she had lived.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

From Catherine Given
author: Fuller, Alexandra
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
Fuller weaves a colorful, disturbing, and finally inspiring story of her
childhood in Africa. This story makes Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” (“which I also loved”) “seem like Pollyanna.” Gritty, suspenseful and at times gory, this story is like a defibrillator for the cushy, suburban heart.  In true and perceptive detail, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” depicts Fuller’s early life as a bright and gutsy white girl growing up at the mercy of her idiosyncratic homesteader parents in mid-19th-Century southern and central Africa.  I marveled at her ability to recall with meaningful understanding events that she had experienced as a pre-teen.  We see the family’s life in an Africa resplendent with natural beauty yet raw in its relentless intensity amid political unrest.  Not only are members of the family devoured by insects, and subject to bouts of malaria –they face overwhelming challenges, including for one period, mistreatment due to extreme racial prejudice as the only whites in the region.  Their lifestyle is also deeply affected by the mother’s alcoholism, which worsens as tragedy repeatedly strikes. I couldn’t put it down.