Tag Archives: parents and children

Youthful Accident or Racial Incident: Upper West Side Story by Susan Pashman

cover imageIn Upper West Side Story, a first novel by philosophy professor and former attorney Susan Pashman, two families in Manhattan are pitted against each other after a tragic accident (possibly a crime) goes from the personal to the political.

The case of two eighth-grade boys – best friends, one white and one black, both in the gifted class and on the chess team – just horsing around or maybe not? – while returning a weekend class trip to Washington, D.C. is nothing like a recent incident of the three black students who opened fire on workers in a Brooklyn school cafeteria, thinks Bettina, who narrates most of the story. Max, the white eighth-grader who becomes a public figure overnight is her son.

Bettina’s a political liberal – an academic – who prides herself on raising her two children – Max and his younger sister Nellie – to be comfortable in a racially diverse, urban environment. Bettina’s husband, Stephen – a city planner enmeshed in local politics – can see clearly how Max and Max’s best friend Cyrus are being used as pawns in the game of racial politics played by the mayor, the district attorney, and most of all the most vocal local activist on racial issues – City Council member Marcus Hake, an African-American fighting for social justice and against racial inequality under the law.

Here’s an excerpt from Upper West Side Story to give you an idea of it:

I stood up to face Stephen, a lump swelling in my throat. “It is simple,” I cried. “I can’t stand all this conniving and second-guessing when the truth is perfectly obvious. It’s always some stupid game with you politicians. But they can’t play games with our son, Stephen. That’s just not going to happen!”

I tore down the hall to our bedroom and stared out at the city. Down every street, behind every window, lives were being ruined – choked by greed, poisoned by ambition, obliterated by self-interest. The city stared back at me, a professor of political theory, a stalwart campaigner for a more just world.

“Sweetheart,” Stephen said gently He stood in the doorway to our room. “I know this could be a bit hard on Max, but it’ll be worse if we try to head it off. Hake will get the press revved up and they’ll mix this in with the cafeteria case even if the D.A. does nothing. It’s better to let them investigate and find nothing. If we get in his way, Hake will blow things up as he always does.

“The mayor’s obviously desperate for a bone to throw to him. The D.A., I’m sure just wants to keep up the office’s image as tough on crimes against kids. She won’t be as eager as the mayor is to yield to Hake. It’s a game, as you said, but I think we have to let it run its course.”

“I won’t have our son made a scapegoat! I won’t let those games get anywhere near him. We owe Max some peace!”

I turned back to the window. I felt a tear start down my cheek and brushed it aside. “They have to leave us in peace, Stephen. You and me, but most of all Max.”

Author Susan Pashman has clearly thought a lot about race, especially in terms of schools and parenting. In January, she started a Kids & Race blog where she posts on these issues. Writing a nuanced novel about a family in crisis allows her to delve more deeply into the complexity of reality vs. theory and imagine what’s happening out of the public eye when an event that you’re used to reading about in the news hits home.

Harvard Square Editions is a publishing house formed by and for Harvard University alumni to publish literary fiction with a social or environmental message. The message in Upper West Side Story that racial politics don’t tell the whole story occasionally overpowers the fiction, but the multilayered story of family, city, and the law, told in the voices of Bettina and Max is moving, and the clash of Bettina’s academic theories and liberal ideals with her maternal desire to protect and defend her son is realistic and thought-provoking.

Upper West Side Story
Pashman, Susan
Harvard Square Editions
May 28, 2015
978-1-941861-03-5
276 pp.
$22.95, softcover

DIsclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review. (I’m not part of the blog tour going on now, but check out it out for a chance to win one of 15 copies of Upper West Side Story.)

“We Need to Talk About Our Children”: The Dinner by Hans Koch (Audio)

cover image of The Dinner audiobookThe Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garret, is best read or listened to without having too much information about it beforehand. (This review is spoiler-free!) The book is written in sections named for meal courses, and takes place over a lengthy meal at an exclusive restaurants. Watch out for reviews that will have you knowing too much by the end of the Apéritif section if you want to get the full impact of the story.

The AudioGO audiobook, read by Clive Mantle, won a well-deserved April 2013 Earphones Award for exceptional audiobook productions from AudioFile Magazine. The voice of the book’s narrator, Paul Lohmann, a regular person who would have preferred to eat at the “regular people cafe” across the street drips with disdain for his older brother Serge (pronounced the French way) — the favored candidate for Prime Minister in the next election. Because he’s a celebrity, Serrrrge (drawn out with sarcastic reverence by Paul each time) was able to get a table on short notice for the two couples – Paul and his wife Claire, and Serge and his wife Babette – to have an emergency conversation about their sons. Their sons, who have a problem that has to be dealt with.

Occasionally, Clive Mantle’s voicing of Babette (with a slight falsetto to distinguish her from Claire, who sounds more natural) sounds too shrill. But there’s a great deal of tension at this restaurant table for four, so a little shrillness is in order. Babette, as the brother’s wife, doesn’t play a large role anyway. This is a story of brothers – ambitious Serge and unemployed Paul – and a nuclear family that keeps to itself – Paul, Claire, and their son Michel – just trying to be happy in their own, regular way.

Put it this way, this is one family dinner you may not want to attend if you’re not in the mood for one tense moment after another, from trivial complaints about the restaurant service to the deadly serious. I would recommend this to audiobook listeners who liked The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, narrated by Satya Bhabha, another excellent audiobook production from AudioGO.

Listen to the beginning of the audiobook here or read an excerpt of the print or e-book here.

The Dinner
Koch, Hans (trans., Sam Garret)
Mantle, Clive (narr.)
AudioGO, 2013
9781620645918
9 hrs. on 8 CDs
$29.95

Disclosure: I received a free download of the audiobook for review from the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox.

Other opinions of this audiobook edition of The Dinner:
Care’s Online Book Club
Love2Listen (reveals additional plot details)

This post is linked to Sound Bytes, a regular Friday audiobook review roundup at Devourer of Books.

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Finding Family, New & Old: So Far Away by Meg Mitchell Moore

Cover image of So Far AwayFor Meg Mitchell Moore‘s second novel, So Far Away, she has created historical diary entries from an Irish immigrant maid’s found notebook, as well as believable contemporary characters ranging in age from 57-year-old archivist Kathleen, to Kathleen’s 30-something friend and coworker Neil, down to 13-year-old Natalie, who travels by bus from her suburban Newburyport home to Boston to visit the Massachusetts Archives in Boston on her own. She brings a crumbling notebook filled with handwriting too spidery for Natalie to read that she found hidden away in her basement – which turns out to be a gripping personal account from a Bridget O’Connell Callaghan (writing in 1975 as an elderly woman) about her position as a young maid just over from Ireland in a Boston doctor’s household.
Natalie (whose parents have separated and haven’t been showing much interest in her life) is investigating her family history for a school project and as a way of escaping bullying classmates who are tormenting her with malicious text messages. Kathleen, living alone with her dog Lucy after losing her teenage daughter years ago, becomes concerned about Natalie, but isn’t sure whether or how to intervene.
The author skillfully brings together several different story lines – historical and contemporary. Readers who liked The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve, or novels by Laura Moriarty or Joanna Trollope, will also like this moving novel about how easily families can break apart and how hard it can be to create new ones.

So Far Away
Moore, Meg Mitchell
Reagan Arthur (Little, Brown)
May 29, 2012
978-0-316-09769-7
$25.99

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of So Far Away from Little, Brown through NetGalley, but plan to purchase my own hardcover copy at an author signing at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library this month. Additional disclosure: I’m friends with the author’s mother-in-law, but I don’t think that influenced the review!

Other opinions of So Far Away (mostly good):
Amused by Books
Coffee and a Book Chick
Devourer of Books
Everyday I Write the Book
Jenn’s Bookshelves