Still Life With Monkey by Katharine Weber

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My Review:

It is always a special treat and enlightening to attend an author talk, and recently I was thrilled to hear Katharine Weber speak about her new book, Still Life With Monkey with contributing editor and former Book Review section editor for Publisher’s Weekly, Sybil Steinberg.  Between research and literary knowledge, the intelligence on the stage was vast.  With sophisticated language and deep characters, Weber’s Still Life With Monkey is a must read for all book groups.  There are many stories within the story and much to discuss.

Duncan Wheeler is a talented architect and owner of his own firm in New Haven, CT.      He was visiting his Thimble Islands site and while driving home on I95 with his assistant, was in a car accident.  His assistant was killed and he survived but suffered injury that resulted in becoming a quadriplegic.  His wife Laura, is an art conservator at the Yale Art Gallery, fixing broken things for a living.  She sees Duncan fall into depression, and while she struggles with her own thoughts of letting go her dream to become a mother, she reduces her hours at work so she can take care of her husband.  Every day had become “a broken series of unsuccessful gestures”, his will to live is wavering, and so to add to the already growing number of hired aides to help take care of Duncan, and to lift his spirits, she requests a capuchin monkey to become a part of their in home support.  Ottoline was feisty, charming and lovable – a welcoming character who gave Duncan some pleasure as he thought about how he might live and how he might exit this life. Will sitting around in a wheelchair all day be Duncan’s life?  Is being alive the same as living?

Not only are we forced to ponder what a life worth living may be, but Katharine Weber teaches us about architecture and art conservation, about care for a paraplegic and about helper monkeys.  In CT, helper monkeys are not legal, but in MA there is a legitimate program that has been around for close to 40 years called Helping Hands.  Katherine had the opportunity to meet a married couple and their helper monkey, Farah on numerous occasions, and witnessed the benefits the monkey provides like buttoning and unbuttoning, page turning, social interaction, bonding and emotional connection.  Farah is 7 lbs and 36 years old and is living with her 2nd and last family, as 40 years old is life expectancy for a monkey living in captivity.  Weber’s human characters are not based on real people, but Ottoline the capuchin was based on the charming and lovable Farah.

The character of Ottoline adds texture to an already rich story that highlights ideas about twins, children and secrets.  Duncan is a twin and had been considered the original, and his brother Gordon, the copy.  Duncan had a big life, was highly educated, married with a big job, and in contrast, Gordon had a speech impediment and rode his bike to work at a bookstore.  Interesting to examine their relationship and Gordon’s relationship with Laura, Duncan’s wife.  Also, worth looking at is the impact the neighborhood children have on Duncan’s mental health, and the effect secrets may have on relationships and self worth.

Still Life With Monkey is a story about life and relationships.  It is not a tearjerker yet it is filled with compassion and humor.  I highly recommend it for book clubs and discussion.

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Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Katharine Weber is the author of six novels and a memoir, all book group favorites. She is the Richard L. Thomas Professof of Cretaive Writing at Kenyon College.

Katharine’s fiction debut in print, the short story “Friend of the Family,” appeared in The New Yorker in January, 1993.

Her first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (of which that story was a chapter), was published by Crown Publishers, Inc. in 1995 and was published in paperback by Picador in 1996. She was named by Granta to the controversial list of 50 Best Young American Novelists in 1996.

Her second novel, The Music Lesson, was published by Crown Publishers, Inc. in 1999, and was published in paperback by Picador in 2000. The Music Lesson has been published in fourteen foreign editions.

The Little Women was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2003 and by Picador in 2004. All three novels weren named Notable Books by The New York Times Book Review. Writing in The New York Times, Richard Eder said, “Katharine Weber’s novel, which stops being droll only to be funny and almost never stops being exceedingly smart, is a hermit crab. Creeping into the whelk shell of Louisa May Alcott’s celebrated novel, it avails itself of the spirals to do double and triple twists inside them.”

Katharine’s fourth novel, Triangle, which takes up the notorious Triangle Waist company factory fire of 1911, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in 2007 by Picador. It was longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, was a Finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the Paterson Fiction Prize, and was the winner of the Connecticut Book Award for Fiction.

True Confections, Katharine’s fifth novel, was published in January 2010 by Shaye Areheart Books, and was published in paperback by Broadway Books in December, 2010. In January Broadway also brought out a new edition of The Music Lesson. Triangle and The Music Lesson are now available as ebooks, too.

Her sixth book, a memoir, The Memory Of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities, was published by Crown in July 2011, and by Broadway in 2012.

Her new novel, Still Life With Monkey, from Paul Dry Book is available now.

Katharine’s maternal grandmother was the songwriter Kay Swift. Since Swift’s death in 1993, Katharine has been a Trustee and the Administrator of the Kay Swift Memorial Trust, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting the music of Kay Swift. This work includes the first Broadway musical with a score by a woman, “Fine and Dandy,” and several popular show tunes of the era, among them “Fine and Dandy” and “Can’t We Be Friends?”

Fiction You Shouldn’t Miss

Great new books are being published all the time and it is not easy to keep up.  Here are several of my favorite fictional novels from the recent past.  Have you read them all?

 

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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

As stated in Goodreads:

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

 

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

As stated in Goodreads:

As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.

 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

As stated in Goodreads:

Despite their differences, sisters Vianne and Isabelle have always been close. Younger, bolder Isabelle lives in Paris while Vianne is content with life in the French countryside with her husband Antoine and their daughter. But when the Second World War strikes, Antoine is sent off to fight and Vianne finds herself isolated so Isabelle is sent by their father to help her.

As the war progresses, the sisters’ relationship and strength are tested. With life changing in unbelievably horrific ways, Vianne and Isabelle will find themselves facing frightening situations and responding in ways they never thought possible as bravery and resistance take different forms in each of their actions.

 

The Paris Architect

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

As stated in Goodreads:

Like most gentiles in Nazi-occupied Paris, architect Lucien Bernard has little empathy for the Jews. So when a wealthy industrialist offers him a large sum of money to devise secret hiding places for Jews, Lucien struggles with the choice of risking his life for a cause he doesn’t really believe in. Ultimately he can’t resist the challenge and begins designing expertly concealed hiding spaces—behind a painting, within a column, or inside a drainpipe—detecting possibilities invisible to the average eye. But when one of his clever hiding spaces fails horribly and the immense suffering of Jews becomes incredibly personal, he can no longer deny reality.

Written by an expert whose knowledge imbues every page, this story becomes more gripping with every life the architect tries to save.

 

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

As stated in Goodreads:

In this striking literary debut, Carol Rifka Brunt unfolds a moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends and find that sometimes you don’t know you’ve lost someone until you’ve found them.

1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

An emotionally charged coming-of-age novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a tender story of love lost and found, an unforgettable portrait of the way compassion can make us whole again.

 

The Rent Collector

The Rent Collector by Cameron Wright

As stated in Goodreads:

Survival for Ki Lim and Sang Ly is a daily battle at Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in all of Cambodia. They make their living scavenging recyclables from the trash. Life would be hard enough without the worry for their chronically ill child, Nisay, and the added expense of medicines that are not working. Just when things seem worst, Sang Ly learns a secret about the bad-tempered rent collector who comes demanding money–a secret that sets in motion a tide that will change the life of everyone it sweeps past.

The Rent Collector is a story of hope, of one woman’s journey to save her son and another woman’s chance at redemption.

 

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

As stated in Goodreads:

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.