Monday, March 2, 2015

"I'll Be Seeing You": Letters, Love, and Loss

My friend Rose told me that her experience reading "I'll Be Seeing You" by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan (who never actually met each other while writing this book) was like finding a box of letters in her grandmother's attic and reading them with a cup of tea in hand - learning about the past and being privy to secrets and the stories shared from a friendship forged by longing. 

"I'll be Seeing You" follows the 1943-1945 correspondence between Rita Vincenzo, a sensible woman from Iowa whose husband and son are both away serving in WWII, and Glory Whitehall, a wealthy young mother from  Massachusetts whose husband is also in the war. Their letter writing begins after a 4-H meeting urged  women who were waiting for their loved ones to return from the war to find comfort in other women who could understand their circumstances.  The women develop a strong friendship as they share their respective stories of their families, and how they try to pass the days as they wait for life to return to a new sense of normal.  Their worry over their loved ones, their fear of receiving the dreaded death telegram, their daily joys and sorrows bond them together and help each of them overcome bouts of despair and depression as the war continues.  

Glory writes about the birth of a baby girl, parenting a rambunctious toddler (who contracts an illness that leaves him a shell of his former self), and mostly with the intensity of her relationship with her husband's (and her) best friend, Levi who was asked to "look after" Glory in her husband's absence.  Rita writes about her loneliness, her wicked neighbor, her son's secret girlfriend, and her best friend's relationship with a handsome stranger with a shady past.  Each of their stories bring them closer together and gives them a sense of comfort that there is someone sharing their pain and joy.  Along with the more personal stories they share, Rita also gives Glory gardening advice for her victory garden to grow in her seaside climate and they each share war time recipes like Tomato Soup Cake and Mock Veal Cutlets.  

What this book did for me was show me a very personal side of WWII that is often forgotten - what the women did while they waited.  1943 differed greatly from our modern day society where many women work outside of the home and enjoy choices that women in the 1940s could never dream of.  The women then relied on their men, but in their men's absence what many of the women learned is that they are strong beyond measure - especially when they could help each other.  In one letter Glory adds, "P.S. I love being a woman.  A woman among amazing women.  Women who understand just how much we need one another." 

It's true.  

The power of women's friendships and connections through tragedy and triumph is a beautiful thing.  Women connect in different ways then men connect - ask any woman who has a life long friend about their soul connection with that woman.  Ask any woman about the special women in her life and how important those bonds are for her - the talks, the sharing, the nights out spilling their hearts to each other over bottles of wine or meeting for coffee just to connect face to face and share in each others' company.  

This book made me want to connect with all my best friends.  It made me want to sit down and write good old fashioned letters (not Facebook messages or text messages, but real in depth letter writing).  Our best friends are the ones who make us feel connected to something larger than ourselves, who tell us the truth even when we don't want to hear it, who bring us back from the brink of destroying ourselves, and who help us make sense out of the world even when nothing makes sense. They are our truest allies in wartime and in peacetime. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

"The Snow Child": She comes from the land of ice and snow

I read seasonably.

In the summers, I enjoy romantic stories without heavy handed writing, books that I can get through quickly, but that still have substance.  In the winter, I enjoy the sad, hearty historical fiction books, books that are a challenge and can take me weeks to finish.  Because we took a break from our Chicagoland harsh winter and went south to Florida to feel some sunshine, I was torn on what to read.  Do I go with my more summery books, or should I stay with a heavy winter book? I opted to take one of each and see how much reading I could accomplish in the week I was away.  My wintery book, "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey, made me feel warmer than the book I chose as my summer read (Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins).

Although I was reading about Jack and Mabel, a couple who moves from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s to begin a homestead after suffering the birth of a stillborn child, I felt warm due to the "Little House on the Prairie"-esque vibe of their lives.  It's quiet and a bit lonely inside of a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness.  They need to live off of moose meat - all winter long (talk about getting tired of leftovers) - in order to survive.  Mabel continues to suffer under the crushing weight of the Alaskan winter with it's darkness and hostile environment that leads her to thoughts of loneliness and lack.  For Jack to succeed in potato farming, he needs to do countless hours of back breaking physical labor that is both hard and dangerous on his aging body.  But the warmth of their love in their small, tidy cabin in the woods gives comfort and hope.  This book paid reverence to the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, but made no mistake about the dangers of this wintry world where ice can swallow people whole, and humans cannot survive without a struggle against loneliness, darkness and isolation.

As the story unfolds, the couple who have longed their whole lives together for a child but are now too old to have one, uncharacteristically become playful during a snowstorm.  They build a snow child, and Jack even carves a beautiful face for it.  Mabel puts a hat and gloves on it, and in the morning when they wake up, the snow child sculpture they created is gone.  Mabel soon witnesses a little girl who cautiously approaches their home (almost like a wild animal seeking shelter) wearing the hat and gloves that she placed on the snow creation.  Is this the child that they have always longed to have? Or are they imagining this girl because they are suffering from loneliness and they've always wished to have a child with them?

In Eowyn Ivey's debut novel, she shows amazing prowess as a magical realism writer.  She creates quiet ambiguity with her storyline, and she crafts characters who are believable and likable.  The characters and the readers know about the fairy tale that tells the story of an old couple who want a child and fashion one out of ice and snow.  The fairy tale never ends happily, though.  The child melts or leaves forever in the spring.  Mabel truly believes that she and Jack have created a child, just like in the fairy tale she remembers from her childhood.  The girl that comes into their world, who goes by the name of Faina and travels with a loyal red fox, seems magical enough - with her hair in tangles of the Alaskan wilderness and the smell of the herbs and nature. She leaves blizzards in her wake, holds single snowflakes in her palm, and most of all she can survive the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Alaskan winter unscathed.  Ivey divulges nothing and even leads the reader to question Faina's existence by never using quotation marks when she talks to anyone.  Is she real? Is she imagined? Is she magical? It's hard to know even by the end what's real and what's imagined not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel as well.  Mabel swears that Faina is magical and even warns against getting her too warm out of fear that she will melt just like in the fairytale.  "You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them, and in fact Mabel had come to suspect the opposite. To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers." Jack, however, knows something about Faina's past that he promises never to tell anyone even if it's the right thing to do.

What is clear, though, is the magical charm of this simple story of a couple who longed to be parents and find themselves in the role asking themselves the same questions parents everywhere ask.  What decisions do you leave to your child? How do you allow your child freedom without losing them forever? How do you hold onto someone who only wants to be free? When do you push and when do you let go? What is done out of protective love and what is done out of the fear of loss? What role does fate play in our lives and do we have the power to change our fate or are we powerless in the face of it? Do you believe in miracles?

Many questions come up throughout this novel, but the mysterious world of Faina will keep the reader interested, regardless of the season that he or she chooses to read this book.  "The Snow Child" is an impressive debut novel that will allow you to love the winter a bit more and see the beauty in the snow and ice and harsh extremes.  It will show you how strong every individual is even when they believe they are weak, and it will make you question the notion of "good parenting" without lectures or research.  It's just good, magical storytelling in any season.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"The Girl on the Train": Get Me Off Of This Ride

I know that "The Girl on the Train" is the "IT" book right now.  Everyone is comparing it to "Gone Girl" because of the mystery, the intensity of it, and the thrill ride and pace of the plot.  I couldn't wait to read it, and was bummed when we went on vacation and it had not arrived at the library yet for me to take with me.

When I saw it at the airport bookstore, I bought it even with the hefty hardcover price. Having a good book with me makes any vacation feel complete.  I started to read it and was immediately sucked into the story of Rachel, a depressed, jilted, obsessive, alcoholic who is pretty much a train wreck.  She spends her mornings and early evenings on the London bound commuter train staring out the window and making story lines about one stop in particular and one couple in particular.  She's basically stalking the couple from the train until one day she sees something that disturbs her and that sets even more disturbing events into motion.

I can't reveal too much more about the plot or the characters because it will spoil the book which many of you will read even if I tell you not to.  Because that's what I'm going to do - tell you not to read this book, which will then make you want to read it even more.

Why should you stay away from Paula Hawkins' thriller that is gracing the Bestseller list and flying off the shelves (even at the airport bookstore)? The characters are all so unlikeable that it didn't really matter to me what happened to them after I read the first 100 pages (which I did read very quickly).  I get it.  We all have a dark side, but when ALL the women are depressed and co-dependent in some way or another (a door mat, a stalker alcoholic, a stay at home narcissistic brat, and a liar and cheater), and all the men are abusive tyrants, it makes for an unlikeable cast of characters that might even deserve the tragedies that befall them.  This is a VERY harsh statement, too because what happens to them isn't really all that pleasant. But I know that you know the feeling in a horror movie when the dumb girl leaves by herself to take a midnight walk in the woods because she is depressed about her ex-boyfriend and she doesn't listen to the advice of all of her friends to stay close and then the guy with the chainsaw comes up behind her and she just stands there crying before she even hears the chainsaw, and then you think "you had it coming to you because you are a ridiculous human being" . . . well, that's what I felt pretty much the whole way through this book.

It also feels much like being on a commuter train - monotonous, repetitive, and dreary.

The writing was okay, but nothing too bold or beautiful.  Getting the multiple perspectives from the different, broken women was nice, but may have revealed too much.  It would have been an interesting twist to just stick with Rachel's perspective the entire novel.  With such an unreliable narrator, the book could have created more edginess or even more intensity.  It certainly would have lead to a more dramatic and original unfolding.  It's no good when the reader can figure out the mystery with over 100 pages yet to read.

I wanted to like this book, but it wasn't what I thought it would be.  I regret spending the money on it at the airport bookstore and regret even more that now I own it.  This isn't a book I will be loaning to others unless they insist that they must read it, which I know that even after I tell them not to, they will anyway.

Monday, February 2, 2015

'The Girl You Left Behind': Jojo Moyes Knows How to Play Me Like a Fiddle

After a hefty book like "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr, I thought I would reward myself with a light Jojo Moyes book, so when I saw "The Girl You Left Behind" actually on the library shelf (Jojo Moyes books are perpetually checked out), I did a happy dance right in the M aisle.     What I didn't realize was that the story line in "The Girl You Left Behind" revolves around WWI and art reparations due to German soldiers' fine arts confiscations during WWI and WWII.  Another war time book wasn't really what I wanted, but Moyes knows totally how to play with my heart and make me plow through her fiction.  Although her writing isn't anything like Doerr's lyrical writing that feels more like poetry than prose, Moyes gives a straightforward narrative of two strong female characters, Sophie Lefevre (from the WWI storyline), and Liv Halston (from the current day storyline).

I was instantly captivated by the 1916, small town, France storyline centered around Sophie Lefevre and her passionate artist husband. Eduoard intoxicates her with his bear-like, rowdy presence and asks to paint her.  After a failed attempt to truly capture her on the canvas, she returns to his studio determined to sit for him.  The result is a stunning painting which shows the inner light of Sophie - erotic, honest, and absolutely beautiful.  They also end up falling deeply in love and getting married.

When Eduoard is sent to the front line of WWI, Sophie and her sister are forced to entertain German soldiers after their small French time is occupied, and the German Kommandant becomes obsessed with both the painting and with Sophie.  Sophie uses his affections to her advantage to help others in her town, and even further to try and reunite with her husband.

In the midst of Sophie's treacherous wartime story, Moyes introduces the modern day storyline of Liv Halston, a recent young widow whose husband acquired Sophie's painting while helping a woman on their honeymoon.  Her brilliant architect husband's death has left Liv devastated, lonely and lifeless and her only happiness seems to come from her painting of Sophie.  When she meets the handsome and overly helpful, ex-police officer, Paul McCafferty, it seems as if she can love again until she finds out that Paul is an art recovery officer who is actually seeking to return Sophie's painting with members of the Lefevre family who know it's worth a fortune.

Even though I loved the piecing together of the entire history of the painting (much like the storyline in the book "The Girl in Hyacinth Blue"), I must admit that I wasn't as captivated with the Liv Halston storyline as I was with Sophie's.  There were times where I actually rolled my eyes at Liv and her tirades about her beloved painting.  When she started to push Paul away, I am pretty sure my eye rolling increased, BUT . . . JoJo Moyes brought me back into her emotional tug of war by the end of the book where I most definitely cried as both story lines wrapped up - both with trials (Sophie's didn't take place in the courtroom like Liv's) for their female protagonists.  I cheered, openly wept and read with rigorous speed to see how everything turned out.

Moyes knows how to play with her readers, and just like her books "One Plus One" and "Me Before You", the emotional upheaval will leave you a bit breathless and wanting another helping of her writing after you read the last page.  Be forewarned.  You will get addicted to JoJo Moyes; her books are too good not to, though, so just enjoy being played like a fiddle.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"All the Light We Cannot See": Amazing. Simply Amazing.

"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever." 

In the past year, I've read about 100 books.  I could argue, that Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See" is the best one that I've read, and even more than that, maybe one of the best books I have ever read.  There's so much to love about this book - the short intriguing chapters (many are only a page and a half long), the poetic writing style that is both engaging and challenging, the characters who are now lodged in my brain forever, the perspective of WWII that Doerr presents with the two separate story lines which are not typical, but show another side of the war that I never contemplated - the side of choices that people had to make in wartime, or maybe it's Doerr's superb storytelling ability. Even when he switches back and forth in time sequence, and storyline from chapter to chapter, he keeps his reader with him.  When I fall into a book that I don't want to finish because I don't want to lose the characters, when I am both horrified and mesmerized by what I read on every page, when my heart races as the characters endure hardships and terrifying situations, and when I am somehow transported to another time and place - I know I am reading masterpiece.

After I finished the last page of "All the Light We Cannot See" I said, "Wow."  I was home alone and although I had about 1,000,000 other things to do, I needed to keep reading the last 100 pages of the book to find out what happened to Werner Phennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc. The story opens in Saint-Malo, a small (and dramatic) walled city in Brittany that has been occupied by German soldiers and as we find out in the subscript at the beginning of the novel, Saint-Malo "was almost totally destroyed by fire . . . Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree." Marie-Laure, who is in her attic, hears something dropping from planes and with her acute senses due to her blindness, discerns that these are leaflets because she can smell the fresh ink.  In the same town at the same time, Werner, a young German soldier who specializes in radios, is trapped in the basement rubble of a nearby hotel.  These two characters will intersect in magical ways throughout the novel.

Marie-Laure lives with her father who is the key keeper at a museum in Paris.  At age 6, Marie-Laure loses her eyesight and her father relentlessly helps her to cope with the adversities she faces as a young blind girl.  He constructs elaborate scale models of their neighborhood for her to study and encourages her to find her way and lead their walks, so she can learn independence.  He also constructs intricate puzzle boxes for her to solve.  When the war begins, their world,  like the worlds of so many others, changes drastically.  The museum owner entrusts one of the most sought after stones in the world, The Sea of Flames, with trusted employees from the museum; three fakes are distributed and one real stone.  None of the employees know which they are carrying, and Marie-Laure's father has one in his possession.  They flee Paris and end up with Etienne, Marie-Laure's reclusive great uncle in Saint Malo.

The parallel storyline belongs to Werner Phennig, a snow haired orphan who has an uncanny knack for constructing and repairing radios.  Word of his amazing skills reaches a german officer who is in need of a repairman for his expensive radio.  When Werner fixes what no other person was able to fix, the german officer recommends that Werner should apply to a Nazi training school for young boys.  Werner, who fears succumbing to the fate that his dad suffered - being crushed while mining, accepts the offer and is transported into a "kill or be killed" world where logic disappears, friendships are trumped by violence, and being special or different are looked upon as weaknesses.  Dr. Hauptman who mentors Werner during his time at the school tells the students, "Life if chaos, gentlemen. And what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of a species.  Winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff."  The whiter the hair, the bluer the eyes, the faster you can run, the crueler you can be earn higher marks than compassion and artistry.  Werner soon learns that hardening his heart is his best defense.

As the book progresses and the war intensifies the lives of these two characters criss cross and meld together the past innocence of Werner's youth when he and his sister Jutta would listen to the radio and hear a professor's voice who talked about light, "The brain is locked in total darkness . . . And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement.  So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?" and the evils that overshadow wartime for both soldiers and civilians.  Connected by radios and terror, violence and survival, Werner and Marie-Laure meet and in a way save each other.

The title, "All The Light We Cannot See" takes on so many meanings throughout this book - from the radio broadcasts, to Marie-Laure's blindness, to being trapped in an attic or in a basement buried in the rubble from the collapsed Hotel of Bees, but the real lightness in this book was the airy way in which Doerr led the reader through his intensely lyrical style.  Each short chapter reads like it's own vignette, but never feels choppy in the scope of the sweeping novel.  Doerr proves that he is a master of storytelling, and a craftsman of words.  I literally at times got a bit teary eyed with how beautiful the writing was in this book.

If it's been awhile since you've lost yourself in a fiction masterpiece, it's time to pick up "All The Light We Cannot See."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"The Children Act": Why have I never read Ian McEwan until now?

It's been awhile since I've read a book that led me to openly debate with my husband in the evenings. I'm embarrassed to admit as an avid book enthusiast that I've never read a book by Ian McEwan before this one which I am pretty sure was on every single "Best Books of 2014" list.  I saw the movie "Atonement," but seeing a movie and reading an author's style do not correlate.  At first I was a bit put off by the stuffy, pretentious quality of the writing (it read more like a movie script to me than a novel), but that quickly dissipated as I worked my way into the daily dilemmas that high court Judge Fiona Maye faced and in particular the case of Andrew, a 17 year old Jehovah's Witness suffering from leukemia whose family refused to give him a blood transfusion based on religious reasons.

In the lead up to this court case, the reader learns that Fiona, age 59, is a judge of impeccable reasoning skills.  She is highly respected in her field and the court cases that she faces - from conjoined twins who must be separated in order to save the life of one even if the devoutly Catholic parents don't want to go against God's will, and divorce settlements involving Jewish parents, often relate in some way to religion.  With each case she hears, she uses sound reason and logic to decide what is best for each child involved using The Children Act (1989) as her guide: "When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” - SECTION I (A).  

The backdrop of her reason and logic filled days in court is her emotional and personal distress at home as her husband, Jack, seeks her approval to have an affair with a much younger woman.  Fiona is both disgusted and horrified with Jack's request even if he chooses to blame her for his need to stray citing her emotional and physical distance as the main reasons he wants to have a heated love affair with someone else. Their icy relationship drips with tension and betrayal.  Both sides are hurting; in the case of love, logic and reason often don't count.

But the law will not wait for personal problems at home. Andrew's case must be decided almost immediately due to the severity of his cancer and the necessity for a blood transfusion.  In order to get a clearer understanding of his physical condition and his personal wishes, Fiona visits him in the hospital to understand why he and his family are refusing treatment. After this visit, Fiona comes to the conclusion that Andrew's welfare is not the paramount consideration of his family and his church and overrules their denial of the transfusion, forcing Andrew to receive a life saving treatment.

What happens from here both startled and confused me, but the delicacy of the situations presented in the book made me think long after I closed the cover in the evenings, and stayed with me after I finished the book.  I brought up the dilemmas to my husband over dinner and was surprised by his answers. So many questions are presented in this book: Whose fault is the loss of love? Who gets to ultimately make the decision about the welfare of a child? An adult? A relationship? What happens when we are unable to act in the best welfare of a child or ourselves? What role does religion play in our lives? What ultimately gives our lives meaning?

These are big questions and even if the critics agree that this book doesn't fit in the realm of most of McEwan's books, much exists in it's short length that can pose huge life questions without easy answers which make it an excellent selection for a book club (at least a book club that talks about the books they choose).  As a McEwan virgin, I was impressed with his ability to humanize, criticize and stay neutral all at once.  Even with the seeming pretentiousness of the language at first, this book is worth the read, worth the debate, and worth the title of one of the best books of 2014.

Friday, January 16, 2015

"Belzhar": An almost great YA book

The entire concept of Meg Wolitzer's latest foray into the world of YA literature intrigued me.  Five students are hand chosen for a mysterious and life changing course called "Special Topics in English" taught by the highly regarded Mrs. Quenell. These aren't any ordinary students and this is no ordinary school; they attend The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic high school in rural Vermont for emotionally fragile and highly intelligent students. On the first day of Special Topics in English the five specially selected students gather in class and Mrs. Quenell tells them that they will only study the life and works of Sylvia Plath, the queen of adolescent angst and blinding depression.  Each student is given an ancient journal, and what each student finds out in turn is that when they write in their journals they are  transported to a time where their lives were less stressful and free of the trauma that led them to The Wooden Barn.  The five students secretly meet and come up with the name "Belzhar" (get it Bell Jar?) to talk about where they go when they write in their journals.

It sounds cool, right? Well, it was . . . mostly really good.

I read Wolitzer's highly acclaimed "The Interestings" last year and felt lukewarm about it.  It was long, murky and each of the so called interesting characters turned out to be sad and depressed for different reasons.  This book held promise and because the students are at a school for mostly depressed students, there is no false hope that they aren't already damaged by the misery that life forces on you at times.  The narrative voice, Jam Gallahue, kept me interested from the very first chapter when she explains that her London exchange student boyfriend, Reeve's death, was the reason she ended up at The Wooden Barn.  She seemed fragile, but competent, and after suffering from the loss of true love with a truly original boy, who wouldn't be fragile?  The other students in the class: Sierra Stokes (a beautiful dancer), Marc Sonnenfeld (an overachiever who always wants to follow the rules and do the right thing), Griffin Foley (a moody farm boy who hides behind his hair and hoody), and Casey Cramer (a socialite who is wheelchair bound after a car accident)  have trauma in their lives, too and each disclose their stories as the novel unfolds.

What I liked about this book is the concept.  I love that the writing really matters in Mrs. Quenell's class, and that each student is treated as highly competent vs. highly fragile.  When the students balk about writing regularly in the journals, Mrs. Quenell firmly tells them, "Everyone has something to say.  But not everyone can bear to say it.  Your job is to find a way." The idea of writing as therapy is not just appealing to me, but the reality that I lived for 15 years as I watched my students write their way free of past and present painful experiences and discover their worth and strength as individuals in their words.  Maybe it's just the past English teacher in me, but I wanted to know more about Mrs. Quenell.  Wolitzer doesn't spend enough time developing her, and at times she seemed like a throw away character vs. the inspirational teachers of past YA classics like Mr. Keating in Dead Poet's Society (oh, Robin Williams.  The sad irony of that film still pokes holes in my heart today).

I also loved the idea that each of these students had to travel to the past to understand their emotional pain (and break free of it) in the present.  How tempting would it be to stay in a world where we didn't have to deal with our most traumatic moments and ordeals? But, as Jam finds out in her Belzhar, no advancements or progress can be made in that world.  It is stress free and happy, but no future exists there.

Just like in "The Interestings," Wolitzer assembles an interesting cast of characters who each read like real people.  There is a Breakfast Club type quality about them as they sneak away to their weekly meetings and talk about their experiences in Belzhar and their fears about what happens when the journal is full.

Maybe the biggest let down for me was the truth of Jam's story at the end.  I don't know why, but it made me mad and sad all at once.  I think about all the hopeful young adults out there that get stuck in emotions and allow them to take over their lives to the point of obsession and mental breakdowns. Even with my background teaching and dealing with teenagers and teen angst every single day, Jam's story hurt to read.

There are big questions posed here like how do we deal with grief and how to we continue on after the inevitable tragedies of life occur? There is an even bigger question about reality and what we choose to view as the truth. Wolitzer doesn't dive into these questions, though, with enough conviction to lend them weight.  Maybe if there had been more about Sylvia Plath's life and work and more parallels to her?

I'm not sure what would have made this semi-good YA book really great. I did read it in one day, and Wolitzer kept my attention the whole time.  I know that young teenage girls would love it, and it might even get them interested enough to read more Sylvia Plath which would be a great thing.