Review: Lost in Yonkers

170539Title: Lost in Yonkers
Author: Neil Simon
Publisher: Samuel French, Inc.
Release Date: June 2010 (first published 1990)
Length: 114 pages
Series?: no
Genre: aDram, Humor

Find the book: Goodreads |Amazon

Neil Simon’s inimitable play about the trials and tribulations that test family ties – winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

What happens to children in the absence of love? That is the question that lies at the heart of this funny and heartrending play by one of America’s most acclaimed and beloved playwrights. Debuting at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 1990, Lost in Yonkers went on to win four Tony Awards, including Best Play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize, and tells the moving drama about the cruelties and painful memories that scar a family.

It is New York, 1942. After the death of their mother, two young brothers are sent to stay with their formidable grandmother for the longest ten months of their lives. Grandmother Kurnitz is a one-woman German front—a refugee and a widow who has steeled her heart against the world. Her coldness and intolerance have crippled her own children: the boys’ father has no self-esteem . . . their Aunt Gert has an embarrassing speech impediment . . . their Uncle Louie is a small-time gangster . . . and their Aunt Bella has the mentality of a child. But it is Bella’s hunger for affection and her refusal to be denied love that saves the boys—and that leads to an unforgettable, wrenching confrontation with her mother. Filled with laughter, tears, and insight, Lost in Yonkers is yet another heartwarming testament to Neil Simon’s talent.

REVIEW

The Skinny

Jay and Arty come to live with Grandma and Aunt Bella after their mother dies. Their father, Eddie, cannot serve in the military, so he is a traveling salesman throughout the south. He sells metals – steel, mostly – to benefit the military and contribute to the war. They learn interesting things about their Aunt Bella and Uncle Louie, both who have their own struggles, while trying to please their hard-nosed German grandmother.

The Players

Jay – called Yakob by Grandma

Arty – called Artur by Grandma

Eddie – Jay and Arty’s father, he is a traveling salesman selling metals for the military, known to be sickly

Grandma – a hard, cold German woman, escaped Berlin, owns a candy store

Aunt Bella – Jay and Arty’s aunt, she lives with Grandma and works in the candy store, has the mindset of a child

Uncle Louie – Jay and Arty’s uncle, he is rarely around and seems to take part in nefarious activities

Aunt Gert – Jay and Arty’s aunt, she has a speech impediment

The Highs and Lows

  • Jay and Arty. The two are wide-eyed coming to live with Grandma. They know virtually nothing about their relatives, since they’ve never really visited. They are a quiet, cute duo who are piecing together and learning the history of Grandma, Bella, Louie and Gert.
  • Grandma. She is a hard, cold, steeled woman who does not believe in showing any emotion. A display that could be interpreted as weakness disgusts her. She suffered in her escape from Berlin, and although she has buried her husband and even some of her own children at young ages, she does not cry. In this, she has pushed the rest of her children away. She keeps a tight reign on the candy store and knows when even a pretzel has gone missing. It is rumored that Grandma has thousands of dollars stashed away somewhere in the house.
  • Bella. She is a grown woman, in her mid-thirties, but has the mind of a child. She will be that way always, and she should be in the Home. Grandma has threatened her many times to go into the Home, but Bella knows she does not want to be alone. She uses this to her advantage. That is Grandma’s weakness. Bella is a strange mix of child and adult, having her own hopes and dreams. She believes she is going to marry Johnny, an usher at the movie theatre. They’re getting married because they’ve gone to four movies together. He is like Bella, but he cannot read. Bella wants to help him open up a restaurant but needs five thousand dollars to do so.
  • Louie. He’s a little gangster! Really, he is. Or, as Arty calls him, a henchman. He’s a real jokester. He carries a black bag, a gun, and has men in a black Studebaker following him. He comes into town spur of the moment and is very antsy. He hires Jay and Arty to keep a lookout for him, and to tell anyone that he’s not around. He teaches the boys what “moxie” is and the boys learn Louie was a rough kid. He ran away from home several times and got in with the wrong crowd to survive.

The Take-Away

I love this story. I read it in my high school drama class, and I had my sixth grader creative writing class read it this past year. It is a funny story. Everyone fears Grandma. Bella has grown-up dreams without a grown-up mentality. She sees the world in a different light, and it’s a beautiful and sad thing. Louie cracks me up. He’s just hilarious, and he scares the boys, keeps them on their toes.

Recommendation – Buy, Borrow or Skip? 

Buy it. If you don’t want to read the play, but the film version with Richard Dreyfuss. It stays pretty true to the script and brings to life the humor – and the embodiment of Grandma – to life.

 

About the Author

Marvin Neil Simon is an American playwright and screenwriter. He is one of the most reliable hitmakers in Broadway history, as well as one of the most performed playwrights in the world. Though primarily a comic writer, some of his plays, particularly the Eugene Trilogy and The Sunshine Boys, reflect on the twentieth century Jewish-American experience.

 

Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

3367956Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: January 2009
Length: 290 pages
Series?: no
Genre: Historical Fiction

Find the book: Goodreads |Amazon

Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship – and innocent love – that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice – words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

***** Review *****

The Skinny

Henry Lee is a grown man nearing the end of his life. He has recently lost his wife to cancer and struggles to bridge the gap in his relationship with his college-attending son. One day he comes upon artifacts being unearthed from inside the Panama Hotel, and he is thrown back into a swirl of memories from his childhood, from a time when he promised to protect a family’s most precious possessions. Henry reflects on his friendship with Keiko, and he continues to sift through the remains in the Panama Hotel, looking for the belongings of Keiko and her family, and enlists his son and his girlfriend to assist him…while he slowly tells his story of friendship, defiance, and commitment to his own son.

The Players

Henry – a young Chinese-American boy torn in a world of white vs. Chinese. vs. Japanese

Sheldon – a black Jazz player Henry befriends

Keiko – a young Japanese-American girl who ends up attending Henry’s all-white school

Ms. Beatty – the school cook responsible for Henry and Keiko’s scholarshipping duties at school

Marty – Henry’s privileged son; Chinese-American living in a modern world

Samantha – Marty’s Caucasion girlfriend

The Quote

He walked to school each day, going upstream against a sea of Chinese kids who called him “white devil.” He worked in the school kitchen as white devils called him “yellow.”

Prosperity didn’t seem to reach locals like Sheldon. He was a polished jazz player, whose poverty had less to do with his musical ability and more to do with his color. Henry had liked him immediately. Not because they both were outcasts, although if he really thought about it, that might have had a ring of truth to it – no, he liked him because of his music. Henry didn’t know what jazz was, he knew only it was something his parents didn’t listen to, and that made him like it even more.

He thought about those three Japanese couple laying facedown on the dirty floor of the Black Elks Club in their evening finery. Being hauled out and jailed somewhere. He stared back at Mr. Preston, a man trying to buy land out from under families who were now burning their most precious possessions to keep from being called traitors or spies.

The Highs and Lows

  • Henry’s Inner Conflict. Henry is most conflicted in following his father’s rules and expectations. He ends up doing things that outright defy his father, and others that are done on the sly. Regardless, Henry spends three years being ignored by his father entirely, and told during such highly emotional times that he is a stranger, that he is dead to his father. Henry must choose between what is right and his father’s hatred for the Japanese. For a highly traditional family, it is not something that is easy for Henry, but it is something he must do.
  • + Keiko. She is such a sweetheart with such a love for life. She is all things bright and warm and fun and loving for Henry. She makes him feel alive and like there is more outside his father’s household. She stalwartly stands up for who she is – Japanese-American. Despite several instances when Henry could have saved Keiko from her fate by wearing his “I’m Chinese” button, Keiko refused. She endured the unjust punishment on her heritage.
  • – Henry’s Father. Henry’s father migrated to the United States at age 13, after having quit school. He works in the neighborhood fighting to protect the Chinese and their cause. He fights for China on US soil. He fights for China in China. He fights for China in Japan and in Russia. He does everything possible on the ground in the US to support his cause, and he is a highly respected individual in this community.
  • Marty. Marty’s appearance at the beginning of the book painted him as a disgustingly privileged young American boy living it up at college. As the book goes on, though, and Henry’s relationship with his son deepens, there is more to Marty than meets the eye. Henry is so afraid that his son will not approve of his childhood friendship with Keiko that he at first does not want to tell their story for fear of tarnishing his late wife’s memory, but Marty is a young man who believes in happiness.
  • Fathers and Sons. Henry mentions on more than one occasion his own perspective of his relationship with his father, comparable to a widening gulf with no conversation and very little reaction. At one point, he realizes he had enacted and enforced the same type of relationship with his own son, continuing the cycle, and makes a conscious choice not to.
  • Ms. Beatty. The school kitchen cook is more than meets the eye. She seems like a lazy, smoking white woman with little regard for the Asians working in her kitchen, but nothing could be further from the truth. When things get really sticky for Henry or Keiko, Ms. Beatty is there. She shows up the white kids who picked on Henry and Keiko. When Keiko is gone and in the internment camp, Ms. Beatty finds a way for Henry to get to her. Turns out Ms. Beatty has much at stake like Henry and Keiko. She’s just doing what she can.
  • Racism, Prejudices and People of Color. Yes, this book has it all: African-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans in a time when all were shunned and unwanted in a homogeneous white society. They are left on the fringes, and even turn against one another – at least, the Chinese against the Japanese. They must make the clear distinction they are not Japanese, hence the “I am Chinese” button Henry’s father requires him to wear.
  • The Friendship. Henry and Keiko have such a beautiful childhood friendship. True, it is forged on the fringes of nonacceptance, exclusion and rejection by attending an all-white school – and having to scholarshipping through it.
  • Power of the Words. The language and images that Ford paints are absolutely beautiful. She creates such a world of nostalgia that forces the reader to reminisce with Henry, and fall in love alongside him.

The Take-Away

When Henry takes Keiko to the Black Elks Club, it is such a beautiful scene. I love it.

Recommendation – Buy, Borrow or Skip? 

Buy it. This is not one to skip past, and I definitely wouldn’t borrow it.

***** About the Author *****

My name is James. Yes, I’m a dude.

I’m also the New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet—which was, in no particular order, an IndieBound NEXT List Selection, a Borders Original Voices Selection, a Barnes & Noble Book Club Selection, Pennie’s Pick at Costco, a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, and a National Bestseller. It was also named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association.

In addition, Hotel has been translated into 34 languages. I’m still holding out for Klingon (that’s when you know you’ve made it).

I’m an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a survivor of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp.

Find the author: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

Review: The Burgess Boys

18770396Title: The Burgess Boys
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
Release Date: April 2014
Length: 352 pages
Series?: no
Genre: Literary Fiction

Find the book: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art.

***** Review *****

Three siblings: Jim and twins Bob and Susan. They’ve lived their entire lives on eggshells following the tragedy that killed their father. They all carry blame and guilt, and they wear the most intricate masks I’ve ever seen among sibling characters.

The Burgess kids had a hold on her, I think, as a result of the fact that all three had suffered publicly, and also my mother had taught them years before in her fourth-grade Sunday school class.

The story of the Burgess Boys is told from a hometown local. The Burgess kids had always had a grip on her and her mother, and always surfaced in their conversations. The way this was described reminded me of the reminiscing of older generations – the telling of stories and memories.

“People will say it’s not nice to write about people I know.” 

My mother was tired that night. She yawned. “Well, you don’t know them,” she said. “Nobody ever knows anyone.”

That sentiment cannot be more true. Despite growing up with such a sad circumstance haunting them, it was not an event that drew the Burgess family together. If anything, it drove them further apart.

The story pans from character to character in third person, including Jim’s wife Helen, and Bob’s ex-wife Pam. It was in those moments when the focus of the story was told through these two women that I came to really like Helen, and I also understood Pam.

Susan had not yet met Steve, and Jim had not yet met Helen, so Pam, looking back on it, felt that not only was she in love with Bob, but that she was almost his sibling as well; for those were the years when they became her family. 

Jim and Bob end up going back and forth to Shirley Falls in order to help their teenage nephew, Zach, out of a thoughtless prank that has sparked such national news coverage it is now being pursued as a hate crime. They are both attorneys, but Jim skyrocketed to fame with an OJ Simpson-like trial. Everyone in Shirley Falls knows and remembers him quite fondly for this 20-year old trial, while Jim has nothing but loathing for Shirley Falls…and Bob.

Jim and Helen have a perfect life. They have money, their children are off to college. Bob lives a few blocks away and wants to be involved in their lives. Susan still lives in Shirley Falls with her son Zach, both feeling dejected and unable to function with one another as a family.

The character I like the most, though, was Bob. There was a small part of me that could identify with him and as the novel progressed and relationships were revealed in more detail, I began to sympathize with him. I felt he was treated very unjustly by his brother, and I could understand his maintaining friendship with his ex-wife, but the woman in me also railed that he continued to let Pam use Bob for the familiarity he provided in her life.

Terrifying, how the ending of his marriage had dismantled him. The silence – where there had been for so long the sound of Pam’s voice, her chatter, her laughter, her sharp opinions, her sudden bursting forth of tears – the absence of all that, the silence almost killed him. 

Susan was also an interesting character. She’s a woman barely keeping it together, trying to engage her teenage son (who needed some serious therapy). It’s not enough. Zach wants very little to do with her. They are both leading miserable, pathetic excuses for lives.

She learned – freshly, scorchingly – of the privacy of sorrow. It was as though she had been escorted through a door into some large and private club that she has not even known existed. Women who miscarried. Society did not care much for them. It really didn’t. And the women in the club mostly passed each other silently. People outside the club said, “You’ll have another one.” 

The main familial characters come full circle by the end of the novel. They grow in such ways that that had me rooting and cheering for them from the sidelines of the pages. Throughout the entire novel, I enjoyed seeing the juxtaposition of Susan and Jim’s families and marriages.

***** About the Author *****

ELIZABETH STROUT is the author of several novels, including: Abide with Me, a national bestseller and BookSense pick, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England. In 2009 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book Olive Kitteridge. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker. She teaches at the Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University of Charlotte.

Find the author: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

Guest Post: Another Side to the Story

This week I bring the second Historical January guest, Bryony from Re: Read Pages.

Another Side to the Story

Historical fiction is my go-to genre when I want a good read. A good historical fiction can take you to a place far away but familiar or make the past feel more immediate as you immerse yourself in a different time. The details – language, clothing, social customs –that make historical fiction great are difficult to pull off. Doubly so if an author decides to build off of an established, and often beloved, story or character. This literary sub-genre is one of my favourites.

My first brush with historical adaptation came with the reading of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. First published in 1966, the novel is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and tells the story of the madwoman in the attic, Rochester’s first wife. Rhys gives depth and life to a character that was otherwise just a stumbling block to true love. Brontë is only one of many authors whose works have inspired adaptation.

Understandably, one of the writers frequently hit up for adaptation is Shakespeare. With his memorable characters, layered plotlines, and unforgettable language, Shakespeare provides a strong, well-known foundation on which other writers can build.

Over the holiday, in addition to some great meals, I devoured the novel Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen. As the title indicates, Leveen’s novel takes place in the story of Romeo and Juliet (no pressure) and tells the story Angelica, the bawdy Nurse in the famous tragedy.

18773488Angelica enters the service of Juliet’s house as a wet-nurse after losing her own daughter, stillborn, the same night as Juliet enters the world. The first part of the novel covers the first three years of Juliet’s life and shows the bond forged between woman and child as well as revealing Angelica’s history and love-filled marriage to the kind Pietro.

Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy and so, too, Leveen’s story carries tragedy and by the second part of the novel, Angelica, in one form or another, is left with only Juliet to love and to be loved by. This fierce and desperate love is tested as Romeo enters the story.

Juliet’s Nurse hits all the sweet spots: interesting original story, good use of source material, and wonderfully integrated historical detail. One example of all three of these achievements is Leveen’s use of the plague throughout the novel. The famous line, “A plague a both your houses!,” said by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet after being stabbed by Tybalt, is given full weight in Juliet’s Nurse.

In the first half of the story, it is revealed that Angelica and Pietro lost six sons to the plague years before Juliet (and their surprise last daughter) was born. At one point Leveen writes a beautiful passage about the emotional experience of living, while others do not, through the plague. The full passage is heart-wrenching, but here is a small excerpt:

“I still catch sight of Donato or Enzo or any of my boys, out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes I see them at the age they were when death snatched them, and sometimes as the age they’d be now, every one of them grown tall. Sometimes they’re some age in between, so I’m not certain from the fleeting features which son I saw, those beautiful last faces blending one into another.”

In passages such as the one quoted above, Leveen’s writing and storytelling shines. She makes good use of the snippets of information Shakespeare provided about the Nurse, who, in the play, has the third-largest number of lines behind only the title characters. Seeing Juliet’s life from the one closest to her provides an interesting companion read to the famous play and is a wonderful addition to the genre of historical adaptation.

If you want try more authors who have tackled this genre, you can check out Geraldine Brooks (March), Jo Baker (Longbourn) or John Updike (Gertrude and Claudius). And please come visit my blog, re: read pages, to discuss historical fiction, writing, and more. Happy reading!

***** About the Blogger *****

 ~ Bryony Lewicki ~

~ Re: Read Pages ~

I can’t remember not having at least one book on the go, whether being read to by my mother when I was little or picking out books on my own as I got older. Reading is part of my lifestyle. Books come with me wherever I go.

Writing is something I do hidden away. I have non-fiction published but fiction, the stuff from my own imagination, that has stayed firmly in my own head.

I studied journalism and English literature with a side of creative writing and film studies. I am currently writing a novel set in 15th century Italy about a young girl who wanted to join a convent rather than get married but gets caught up with Borgia family (the real life papal family) after meeting Lucrezia Borgia, the pope’s daughter.

Guest Post: What Makes a Successful Historical Fiction Novel?

I am excited today to bring the first guest on the blog for January’s feature focusing on historical fiction. Today, blogger Melissa Beck from The Book Binder’s Daughter is taking over!

What makes a successful historical fiction novel?

One of my favorite genres to review on my blog is historical fiction.  I started reading historical fiction several years back when I picked up Phillipa Gregory’s novels about Henry VIII and the Tudors Dynasty.

What, exactly, constitutes an historical fiction novel?   For me it is really any book that puts the reader in the mindset of a previous period of time and era.  Some books are obviously historical fiction, like those set in 19th century Britain, or during World War II.  But what about a book that is set in the 1980’s or 1990’s?  Would that be considered historical fiction as well?  I would answer yes to this question because during those two decades there were no cell phones with texting, no computers with internet, or e-mail.  Without all of these advancements, especially in technology, we are indeed reminded of a different era in time.

What makes an historical fiction novel a great read?  Like any other book, an historical fiction novel should have interesting characters with which one can sympathize, no matter what the setting.  The plot should also be interesting and contain themes that will keep the reader thinking long after the last page is finished.   An historical fiction novel will stand out, in my mind, if it makes the reader want to know more about the time period in which it is set.

21894404For example, this summer was the anniversary of the centenary of World War I, so I decided to read and review a series of historical fiction books set during The Great War.  I chose 6 novels, all with different settings that also highlighted various countries that were involved in the conflict.  I learned a great deal about World War I and I kept researching various aspects of the war which these books brought up.

One of the best I read was The End of Innocence by Allegra Jordan.  It focused on a group of Harvard students from different countries who were called to fight when war broke out.  Even though these young men were friends and classmates at school, when they were called to fight for their respective countries they became enemies on the battlefield.  History books tend to focus on dates and numbers and facts; but this novel gave me a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices that these soldiers, these human beings, made when going off to war.

I have to end my post with a mention of the best historical fiction novels I have ever read.  It is actually a series of two books written by Stuart Shotwell:  Edumund Persuader and Tomazina’s Folly.  They are both set in England in the early 19th century.  These books are the perfect storm of historical fiction greatness with memorable characters, engaging plots and interesting themes.  They explore topics such as love, marriage, redemption, forgiveness, and pride just to name a few.  They will not only make you appreciate the setting of 19th century England, but they will also make you become more contemplative about your own life in the 21st century.  I invite you to stop by my blog and read the full reviews of these books as well as the plethora of other great historical fiction novels I have reviewed.

***** About the Blogger *****

 ~ Melissa Beck ~

~ The Book Binder’s Daughter ~

profile-picture2-e1403752257961I am a High School Latin/Ancient Greek/History teacher, avid reader, N.Y. Giants fan, and Rush (as in Canadian Prog. rock) fan. Some might say that my reading choices are rather eclectic.  I enjoy reading a wide range of books from Classics to historical fiction, to history and travel writing.  I especially like to support small press and indie authors.

I read serious literary fiction with well-developed characters, mellifluous prose and an interesting plot.  The philosophy behind my blog is threefold; I spread the word about books through my reviews to readers who are likeminded, I give away books to my readers to spread around the enjoyment of good books. Lastly I believe it is important to help authors connect a bit more with their readers through interviews and guest posts.

The best way for me to enjoy a good book is with a cup of Chinese black tea, steeped with the correct temperature of hot water and for just the right amount of time and finished off with a splash of raw milk.

My father was a book binder for 44 years, so yes, I actually am the “Book Binder’s Daughter.”

Find Melissa: Blog | Bloglovin | Facebook | Twitter