Friday, May 8, 2015

Last Minute Mother’s Day Delights

It’s only two days until Mother’s Day and you may still need an idea or two for that Mom in your life. Of course, your mother is smart; she reads. Here are a few suggestions of books I haven’t yet found time to review that a woman in your life will enjoy.

Bettyville by George Hodgman is Mother’s Day personified in the wryly poignant memoir of Hodgman’s life and his return to his small, Missouri hometown to care for his elderly mother Betty. Hodgman, a gay man, whose parents never discussed his sexuality, shows the complicated love a son has for his willful mother. The book also portrays the landscape of disappearing small towns and their churches, diners, and connections.

It isn’t a Hallmark-card-type Mother’s Day book as greeting cards rarely highlight Mother’s Day with a 90-year-old Mother with dementia. Instead, it’s the truth of being the child of someone who needs you. When Hodgman opines that his mother needs more help than he can offer and that he needs to return to New York and his work, his words resonate. “But I cannot leave. I will step up. In the morning, before the fog burns off, I will water the roses. I will get them through this summer. They will not wither on my watch.” GPR/SF/S, BC

The Children Act by Ian McEwan depicts British family court judge Fiona Maye as she wrestles with the case of a bright 17-year-old boy whose refusal to accept a blood transfusion due to his Jehovah’s Witness beliefs will most likely lead to his painful death unless the court intervenes. The troubles in Maye’s marriage and her sadness at being childless along with McEwen’s brilliant writing lift this above the usual such cases. It’s rare when a novel you want to read in one sitting is so powerful. G/SN, BC

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is an inventive universe, a new way of exploring life. It’s a story told through non-linear fragments, bits of poetry, jokes, scientific facts, and quotations. It’s about a wife, a husband, new motherhood, and many random, seemingly unrelated speculations that form a whole. It illuminates the absolutely scattered existence women often experience when first becoming a mother. The fragmented way the story reveals itself is exactly how I remember my inability to complete any thought or action of more than a few moments duration as I first adjusted to motherhood.

You can read this in two hours, but you’ll want to set it down, take a walk, ponder, then return to Offil’s intricate world of desire, fear, connection, disintegration, and life’s rhythmic pace. Offill is a talented author whose works include another novel and titles for young children including 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore which is among my very favorites. G/T, BC

Some Luck by Jane Smiley is the first installment in Smiley’s “hundred years” trilogy. It tells one family’s distinctly American story from 1920 through 1953. Each short chapter covers one year and those years show the birth of children and grandchildren, the depression’s effect on farm families, losses in war, and the different manifestations of love. The title is stated on Walter and Rosanna’s first child Frank’s birthday when his Granny replies to his father’s remarks about his birth.  “That was a piece of luck Walter,” said Granny. “But what would we do without some luck after all.” And there is some luck involved as family members die or survive incidents that could have ended either way. I love the distinct personalities of the children and enjoy Rosanna’s take on them. I’ve heard readers bemoan the absence of the great “linear” novel, one that tells a fine story without convoluted lapses into other realms. Here it is friends and it’s a winner. The second installment, Early Warning, just came out and while I haven’t yet read it, I expect it to be wonderful. G/GPR, BC

Stella Rose by Tammy Flanders Hetrick shows the consequences of making a promise that you may not be able to keep. Abby’s best friend Stella Rose is dying and she asks Abby to assume custody of her daughter, Olivia. Abby says yes because what else can she say and when Stella dies, Abby moves to rural Vermont to rear Olivia, a grieving, willful teenager. The book is partly an epistolary novel in that its narrative thread is sewn with the letters and gifts that Stella leaves for Abby and Olivia to open in each of the twelve months following her death. These letters and carefully selected gifts share what a mother wants to impart to her child and to her beloved friend. Complications arise though as grief can’t be manipulated no matter how carefully one plans. Romance and unexpected twists make this much more than an easily predictable romp. GPR, BC