Sunday, May 27, 2018

What We Carry: The Things (Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver) and Memories (The Lost Family by Jenna Blum)

When I opted to read a free advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review of Property, I felt a bit conflicted. To the extent the words make sense, I enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin. I haven't, however, been a fan of the two other pieces by Shriver that I've read, even putting aside the diss on my alma matter (prep school star "So I tossed it. I didn't apply to Yale or Harvard, but Haverford.") in The New Republic. And I'm not usually a huge fan of short stories. Yet, something drew me to this one and, unlike with the last two attempts, I'm glad I did.

As the title hints, this collection has two longer short stories and a series of shorter ones sandwiched in between. They all revolve, in one way or another, around property...from a gift spurned to a home shared to mail undelivered. It could have felt like a gimmick, but it didn't because each story was unique and took a different approach. I greatly enjoyed The Standing Chandelier, which could sound like a trope itself with a friendship between a man and a woman threatened when the man falls in love with a woman, but managed not to feel like a story I'd heard before. I think one of the shortest tales, about a mail man who simply -- though strategically enough to avoid being caught -- stops delivering some of the mail, was among my favorites (the ending was the best part!).

An enjoyable collection for people who enjoy words and pondering the many ponderings they can inspire. 4 stars. 

The last review I wrote was a book I went into with a heavy dose of skepticism. In contrast, this one fell into my traditional wheelhouse. I've read a good deal of Holocaust-related (or -adjacent) fiction and I fall for characters more than story-lines. But, while it started strong, i came away from this one fairly disappointed.

Peter is a chef. When we meet him, he's working in his own fancy restaurant and he's about to meet a woman he'll fall in love with almost instantaneously. But, Peter is very much a man haunted by his past. His restaurant is named after his first wife, who perished along with their young twin girls in the Holocaust. Peter survived, a fate filled with irony since his wife was not Jewish but merely "guilty by association."

Peter goes on, in time, build a new family. But there is a void that they all feel, a void possibly enhanced by Peter's silence.  Other plotlines are too spoilery, though a brief mention of some biological family....called cousins but at least once removed and who lived in the U.S. during the worthwhile.

I really enjoyed the early sections of the book, esp a notable scene from early in Peter's chef days (he was from a wealthy family and the career choice was not popular w his family...nor was the non-Jewish wife) and scenes of the family during the fearful build-up of Hitlervs power.  Sadly, the book really fell off track for me in the present day narrative, esp after a bit of a time jump. I dont need to love every character and I could see her motivations, but the protagonist of the latter section just didn't work for me. Nor did the somewhat predictable outcome for the youngest primary character.

3.5 stars. Interesting portrait of the ripples created by one person's trials on those around him. Just wish the narrative took a diff path...I liked that it focused on after vs the time Peter spent in the camps but maybe would have been better without the present day time jump.....

Based on a free advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review. Typed on my phone so apologies for typos.