Monday, June 29, 2015

"I'll Give You the Sun": A Magical and Passionate YA Masterpiece


Love does as it undoes.  It goes after, with equal tenacity: joy and heartbreak. 

There's something about looking at a beautiful painting or sculpture and noticing the fine details, the artistry, the imagination and the mystery that surrounds it.  Sometimes you see something so beautiful that you want to cry, or possess it, or to be the one who created it.  Jandy Nelson's "I'll Give You the Sun" is equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking. This YA coming-of-age novel shows how art transforms the characters and is itself a work of art.

It's been awhile since I've been so moved by a YA novel.  Nelson's gift is her lyrical writing which includes elements of magic and supernatural, but also gives heavy doses of reality.  She also nails what blossoming love feels like and looks like in two very smart protagonists.  The narrators in the alternating (and long but lovable) chapters are Jude and Noah, twins who are so close that they almost smother each other in their quest to curry favor from their artistic mother.  Each of them tries to forge their own paths, but life rarely plays fair.  After tragedy strikes their family and truths, secrets and lies mount, they compete with each other in dangerous ways that drive them apart.

I loved every second of reading this book because of the intricacy of the story line - how the characters intersect and bisect each other's lives. The idea of twins who can sense each other's pain hurting each other purposely, but ending up only hurting themselves was captivating as was the whimsy of the grandmother's character and the unforgiving mother who also needed to forgive herself.

On top of the brilliance of Noah and Jude and their original, artistic voices that realize things about love and life that most people never can quite get, the supporting characters all add to rather than detract from the story.  Noah's "split-apart," Brian and his denial of his sexual orientation hurts to read.  He and Noah are so in love, but it's not okay to be who they are in a world of "surftards" and dads who just want their sons to be normal.  And Jude's transformation from bad ass to recluse to emerging bad ass and truth sayer was not just believable but touching.  She falls for her destiny and doesn't realize it just like she doesn't realize her crazy haired, stone sculptor, mentor is actually more closely tied to her life.

All artistic elements of this book work harmoniously to create a gorgeous inner and outer work of art YA novel that is so original and fresh that it feels like a pop of summer sunshine to read, but the depth of it and the emotional charge that comes form reading it makes me want to meet Jandy Nelson and tell her I am in awe of her passion and talent as a writer.

Looking for a coming of age love story this summer? Read "I'll Give You the Sun" and prepare to be amazed.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"At the Water's Edge": Literal and Figurative Monsters

I loved Sara Gruen's book "Water for Elephants." In that book she transported me to the inner world of a traveling circus at the advent of The Great Depression when everyone who worked there was lucky to have a job.  Told through the recollections of the 90 year old Jacob, the reader longs for Marlena and Jacob's relationship to grow and cheers for Rosie the elephant.  It was a book I couldn't put down and I was completely pulled into the story.

Sara Gruen's latest novel "At the Water's Edge" possesses an intriguing storyline just like "Water for Elephants." The story revolves around Maddie and,Ellis (who are married) and Hank (their best friend), three socialite partiers who are spared the horrors of WWII in their elitist New York City existence.  Rather than facing the sacrifices that so many need to make, they live a life of excess and fun until Ellis and Maddie disgrace Ellis's rich family one too many times.  Ellis contrives a ridiculous plan to restore his good faith in the family by clearing his father's reputation as a con-artist who set up a Loch Ness monster hoax.  Even though it's wartime, Ellis convinces Maddie and Hank to journey from New York City to Scotland's highlands in search of the Loch Ness monster.

The journey is perilous through stormy, war torn seas, and when they arrive at their destination in Scotland, their reception is chilly at best.  Ellis and Hank reveal themselves as spoiled, rich, ruthless party boys who have no concern for others, and Maddie begins to see the truth of her marriage as well as her own part in a life she hasn't really been living but deadening with anxiety pills.  While Ellis and Hank abandon her to spend time together carousing and fruitlessly searching for a monster that may or may not exist, Maddie realizes the true monster is not necessarily the legendary one in the Loch, but the one she calls her husband.

The best moments of this book come from the genuine friendships that Maddie forms with "the help" at the inn.  Even more than that, the best character in the book is Angus, the mysterious inn keeper who disappears every day, but protects his staff and his community tirelessly from the threat of enemies both from the war and the patrons who frequent the inn.  The relationship between Maddie and Angus builds throughout the novel's second half and culminates in truly touching fashion.

Rife with legends, superstitions, dark and mysterious beauty, the setting of Scotland's Highlands offers much in the way of cold and lonely landscapes, but Gruen doesn't seem able to actualize all the elements that she orchestrates in the novel.  Ellis is a heavy handed bully, and so unlikable that he seems like more of a caricature than an actual person. Although Hank shows some signs of redeeming traits, he ultimately remains a flat character with little to offer in the way of the storyline.  The whole motif of monsters among us set against the backdrop of WWII and the Loch Ness monster are just as heavy handed as Ellis's drunken and drugged abuse.  The theme is fitting and the different components are there for an amazing story to unfold, but instead the narration and the flow of the plot feel clunky and wooden.

The book itself is highly readable.  I was able to finish it in just a day and a half, but the satisfying feeling I get at the end of a great book just didn't materialize at the end of this one.  It's good, but not great. Interesting, but not mind blowing.  With the rain soaked setting, I felt cold reading it and am ready to warm up with a hot summer book.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Bettyville": You can go home again

There are simple things in life that make sense.

The first thing that makes sense is that it's important to tell the truth about ourselves.  The second thing that makes sense is that we need a place to call home.  What strikes me as most interesting about these two simple things is that it isn't always easy to face the truth of our homes, but it's important to seek understanding about where we come from regardless of how painful that truth might be.

George Hodgman's memoir "Bettyville" explores his relationship with his 90 something mother in Paris, Missouri.  After losing his job and realizing that his mother who is in early stages of Alzheimer's and living alone needs his help more than she is willing to admit, he moves home to care for her.  He isn't quite sure of this at the outset of his "visit" because George is more New York City than small, Midwest town of Paris "population 1,246 and falling" where life moves slowly and revolves around homemade lemon pie, church piano playing, old shag carpets, and visits to the hairdresser.

But something happens as George, a former Vanity Fair editor and book editor, stays to care for his mother.  He begins to see her for who she is, but even more importantly he begins to understand who he is as well.  George's father, Big George died in 1997, and it is abundantly clear in this book that he deeply loved his father and still loves his mother even with their stoic approach to raising him.  For George, growing up was more than awkward.  At times it was painful because he was a gay man living in a small town where people didn't understand homosexuality nor did they care to even try to be open to the idea that gay men weren't choosing that life.  His parents never discussed his sexuality with him, and never really talked to him about his personal life even when he invited boyfriends to their home.

Ultimately, though, "Bettyville" paints the picture of George's mother, a feisty woman who still retains a sense of her former beauty.  Even in her 90s, she refuses to submit to her dementia and her lymphoma diagnosis.  She cares about remembering how to play her favorite hymns and the names of things that seem to slip just outside her grasp.  And George is there to help her in her twilight years with love and tenderness and often humor and a bit of disdain.

Even with their bickering and disagreeing, he respects and admires his elderly mother.  He realizes  that her inability to face his sexuality stemmed from her belief that she had somehow broken him when he was a squalling baby that she could not soothe. "She was not good enough and then he turned out broken and, after all someone had to be blamed. Someone had to have made her boy turn out wrong.  She thinks she was the one." Although George could blame his mother for many of the turns his life took, he never does, and he gives her the greatest gift by staying and helping her when she needs him most.

In his author's note, Hodgman writes, "My greatest wish is to hurt no one, though I believe we are often the most triumphant when revealed at our most human." In this book he uncovers not only what it's like to grow up gay with parents who don't want to acknowledge it, but also what it's like to come home again after living a fast paced life full of wrecked relationships and self-loathing to finally discover yourself as you care for a dying parent.  It's truth after truth after truth, and it's rarely pretty but it's always human.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Page Turning Books to Take on Summer Vacations


I'm always looking for great books to read over summer vacation.  I love the kinds of books that are quick to read but well written, light without being dumb, substantial without making my brain hurt from thinking - a book that if I had to put it down to play with my kids in the pool that I could pick right back up and get right back into it.  If you are looking for a great book to read over summer vacation that fits those criteria, here are some suggestions from the books I've read over the past few years.


Fun Fiction:
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty - I really enjoyed the premise of this book.  It made me think about the last 10 years of my life.  Am I who I want to be?  How did I get to this place in my life?  Is there anything I would change about the last 10 years? Liane Moriarty's books are all pretty fun and fast paced, but this one is my favorite.





The Martian by Andy Weir - It's odd for me to include a Sci-Fi book on my list, but this one, although outside of my reading comfort zone, made me cheer and race to the finish.  It does have a bunch of technical stuff in it, but the determination of the American hero in this book is fun to follow.





Best Romantic Reads With Substance:
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion - I loved the non-traditional romance set up in this book.  I raced through this one at the very beginning of fall.  Cheesy to say it, but I fell in love with the story which follows Don and his intriguing "Wife Project" and how he accidentally falls in love with Rosie.





One Plus One OR Me Before You by Jojo Moyes- I'm embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Jojo Moyes before I picked up her book One Plus One in the "Hot Picks" section of my library.  At first I thought I wouldn't enjoy it, but Moyes has a way of pulling you into her novels, making you stay there and emoting all over the place.









Best WWII Historical Fiction: 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer - Ummm.... this book was pretty much amazing.  The short chapters which alternate story lines will keep you reading even with the lyrical writing style.  The craft that Doer shows astounded me, and so did the characters, the plot and the complexities of another side of WWII that I didn't know existed.






The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah - I didn't think I needed to read yet another WWII historical fiction novel, but Kristin Hannah proved me wrong.  I was breathless most of the time I read this book and I actually threw the book across the room because I got so upset while reading it.  It's fast paced, epic, romantic, and totally worth it.







Best Memoirs:

Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan - I gobbled this down in one day and just couldn't believe what I was reading at certain times.  It's crazy how much about the brain we really don't understand and seeing what can happen to a relatively healthy 20something was terrifying and fascinating all at once.







A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett - This book stressed me out so much that I got a headache reading it . . . because it's that amazing and that good.  I didn't want to talk to anyone or do anything but read my book.  It is a story of hope, to say the least, and survival and the will and determination that human beings have.







Best YA: 

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell - If you love any of the John Hughes movies you are bound to love this touching first love / coming of age story.  You can almost hear the soundtrack as you are reading the book which only makes it better.




We Were Liars by e. lockhart - It took me one day to finish this one, and after I finished it, I'm pretty sure my mouth was still hanging open in disbelief.  I picked my daughters up from school and they asked, "Are you okay, Mommy?" because I was still thinking about this book.






Thrillers: 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins- I did not love this book, but you will turn pages quickly and it's a great book for the beach.  If you've been looking for something to read and you loved Gone Girl, you will most likely enjoy this thriller, too which has more than it's fair share of crazy women.





The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison - I thought this thriller, while way less appreciated and touted than The Girl on the Train, was a way better read.  It has more psychological depth to it, and it will make your heart race often.




Happy summer reading everyone! If you have a book that you think should be on this list, pass it along.  I am always looking for great recommendations.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"The Nightingale": A Beautiful WWII Historical Fiction of Sisters, Hope, Loss, and Love


War sucks.
I continually came back to that statement in my head as I read Kristin Hannah's bestselling "The Nightingale."

After reading I'll Be Seeing You, The Girl You Left Behind, and All the Light We Cannot See  in the span of a few months, I wasn't aching to read another WWII saga about what happens to those that aren't on the front battle lines but waging the wars at home. I'm so glad that I did, though.  Kristin Hannah's "The Nightingale" is a gorgeous book that captivates from the first chapter and doesn't disappoint in the trials, hardships, sacrifices, enduring love, and the evils of WWII. I laughed. I cried. I threw the book several times.  I raced to the end, and I ached along with the sisters in this moving, epic tale.

What I've been loving about reading my latest round of WWII books is that most of them have centered on the role of women in the war.  Yes, men were fighting each other on the battlefields with gruesome results.  We've seen the war movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and we've been privy to the unspeakable horrors of concentration camps. We were inspired by "Unbroken" and what happened in the prison camps, but we rarely see the heroics of women who were left behind when the men went out to fight. "The Nightingale" centers on the lives of two sisters who live in France during the time of German occupation.  Vianne Mauriac lives in the quiet village of Carriveau, but after her husband leaves to fight in the war, a German captain billets at her home.  She and her daughter, Sophie, tread the dangerous tightrope of surrender and fight, secrecy and transparency, and ultimately learn how to live with scarcity, fear, and violence.

Isabelle, Vianne's younger and fiercely independent sister, yearns for love and adventure.  She finds her calling during the war by distributing war leaflets illegally, and delves deeper into the resistance movement after she discovers a downed pilot who needs her help to survive.

Hannah's book provides moments that made me squirm.  At one point after I growled and threw the book, my husband asked, "Are you alright?" with a concerned look on his face.  I didn't feel alright.  Actually, at certain times while I read "The Nightingale" I was sickened by our modern day excess.  Vianne and Isabelle, and millions of others learned to survive on so little during the war.  WWII left a gray cloud of want, hate, sadness, death and starvation.  On the flip side of all the devastation,  "The Nightingale" also showed the tenacity of the human spirit to survive in desperate times.  Vianne and Isabelle showed resilience and love while surrounded by horrors that were unimaginable.

Maybe that is why I put myself through reading another WWII book which make me so sad - all that death, all the innocent lives lost, and the innocence of so many taken away.  Hope is what keeps people going and keeps me reading, and Hannah shows so much hope through Vianne and Isabelle's stories.  I found myself thinking often as I was reading, "Would I have been strong enough to help others?" "Would I have survived?" "Would I have sacrificed so much to keep going?" It's impossible to know what we are truly made of until we find ourselves thrown into situations where we need to survive.

I hope I never need to find out, but reading the stories of the sisters in this book (Isabelle is actually based on a real life character) will help me to remember how strong women can be.  "The Nightingale" is a must read for anyone who loves a good historical fiction book - especially those of you who are like me and can't seem to get enough of WWII historical fiction.




Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Hausfrau": A Murky Look Into the Life of a Lonely, Sad Woman


I don't know where I read that "Hausfrau" by Jill Alexander Essbaum was a great book to read.  Even the book jacket says "Intimate, intense, and written with the precision of a Swiss Army knife." Hmm... not sure I'd agree with all that.  My biggest take away from "Hausfrau" is that life can be very sad and very lonely and very destructive for people who are bored  and totally disconnected with themselves.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and maybe if I had I would understand the references to the Swiss trains always being on time unless someone jumped on the tracks.  Maybe I would have understood Anna Benz's sulky, childish behavior and the ease with which she made horrible choices.  When I started the book, I had a hard time following the jumpy narration that vacillates between Anna's Jungian psychotherapy sessions with Doctor Messerli to Anna's German classes during which she often analyzes how the language mirrors her life to Anna's adulterous exploits with a fellow German class student (Archie) and then flashbacks to another affair she had 2 years prior with a man named Stephen who Anna apparently believed she was in love with.  The reader also gets glimpses into Anna's "real life" with her hot headed, banker husband, Bruno whose mother Ursula watches Anna's three young children while she is in Zurich sleeping around, going to German class, and lying to her therapist.

Anna's life seems comfortable enough, but she's bored and disconnected, and rather than "filling the hole" with food (as she later ponders while eating icing from a cake at her daughter's 1st birthday party), she fills it with tawdry sexual affairs.  I'm not sure how I was supposed to feel during Anna and Archie's trysts which were written in graphic detail, or how I was supposed to feel about one of Bruno's friends hitting on and then hooking up with Anna, or about Anna's flashbacks to her affair with Stephen. Mostly I felt sad and disgusted.  I know people have affairs, but Anna's ability to feel nothing - no remorse, no guilt, no emotion was the saddest part of all.

The final third of the book was the most engaging part after Anna is thrown into an unthinkable tragedy which exposes her for the liar and cheater that she is.  It sheds light on what she did have that she took for granted and maybe what she should have left behind before it spiraled out of control.  There are parts that were uncomfortable for me to read, but while I slogged through much of the narration in the first part of the book, I was compelled to read quickly at the end.

There was much to like about this book.  There are many questions about love, marriage, infidelity, lies, truth that we don't want to face, and more about the properties of fire than I ever knew.  The first line of the book is "Anna was a good wife, mostly" but by the end, I wasn't convinced about that.  Nor was I ever convinced that Bruno was a good husband.  The most redeeming character in the whole book was chattering Mary, the Canadian woman who becomes Anna's close friend and caretaker when Anna's depression impedes her from taking care of herself or her children. The conversations with Doctor Messerli brought up good questions about destiny and fate, and I especially enjoyed Anna's conversation with the priest about predestination.  "It's God who doles out the dominoes.  It is we who set them in line and tip them over.  We have no control over the particular lot we're given.  but we can choose how we arrange what we have. And we can choose to start over, when everything's been knocked down and broken."

Anna's life domino arrangement choices weren't so good, and she didn't really know how to mend the broken pieces of her life.  She ended just as sad and lonely and weepy as she began with little thought of who and what mattered in her world.

Maybe my biggest take away is to be emotionally connected to where I am and who I am. As Anna Benz's life proves, disconnecting emotionally or physically leads to more than one wrong turn.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

"We'll Always Have Paris" : A Mother / Daughter Jaunt Through Europe


For Memorial Day weekend in 2007, my amazing husband surprised me with a long weekend getaway to Paris.  When my students asked, "Mrs. Thiegs, will you be doing anything fun over Memorial Day weekend?" I felt like a jet setter when I responded with, "I'm going to Paris" to their wide eyed disbelieving stares. It's not typical for me to just hop on an airplane and fly to Europe, but Eric and I decided to be indulgent. He had never been to Paris, and I fell in love with it when I visited when I lived in London and couldn't wait to get back.

I packed my suitcase full of cute sundresses that I imagined myself wearing in sunshine bathed sidewalk cafes while Eric and I held hands, sipped our Rose, and people watched.  I couldn't wait to take him to the Musee D'Orsay and amble through The Louvre.  Most of all, I wanted to climb the Eiffel Tower and check out the entire city from the air.

Unfortunately, the weather was not sunny.  It actually rained the entire time we were there, and rather than sundresses, I wore the same sweater and jeans that I packed the entire 5 days since they were the only warm clothing items I packed.  The day we went to Notre Dame, our hands were wrinkled and purple from the cold, rainy weather, but we didn't care.  We were still in Paris.  Rather than staying in the rain, we ducked into little cafes and had lattes and stews, watched the rain and thought about how lucky we were to be together in Paris for a long, romantic (and rainy) weekend. We visited museums and held hands, and loved every second even if it wasn't sunny.

When I read Jennifer Coburn's "We'll Always Have Paris" I was not only transported back to the streets of Paris, but also to London, Venice, Florence, Rome, Salerno, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada and Amsterdam.  Coburn's recollections of her travels with her daughter, Katie, made me want to be indulgent again, and buy tickets for Raina, Story and my husband to fly to Paris and explore together.  There's a difference between going on a Disney vacation with forced fun and really traveling to a different country and experiencing a whole different culture.  Don't get me wrong, Disney vacations are fun, but reading Jennifer and Katie's travel adventures with language barriers, illnesses abroad, navigating foreign public transit, and eating amazing food in piazzas made me want to make those memories with my own daughters.

I loved the fact that Jennifer's husband wasn't with them (even though I would love for Eric to be able to come with us) because it changed the whole feel of their European travels.  Even though Jennifer's motive for taking her daughter on these adventures was because she had an irrational fear that she would die young and she wanted to cram memories of happy times into her daughter's head, the trips themselves were transformative for both of them.  I always marvel at how much more grown up my girls seem to me after we travel somewhere together.  When you are out of your comfort zone, change happens.

Jennifer didn't just recollect her European mother / daughter bonding adventures, but she also interwove her memories of her dad and their relationship.  As she experienced something in Europe, she would delve into a story about time with her dad who died too young from an aggressive form of lung cancer.  Both story lines, were heartwarming.  As Jennifer released some of the pain of losing her unconventional and doting dad, she also began to loosen her need to over control her adventures with her daughter realizing at an outdoor ballet in Florence "that life's most perfect moments could not be planned, scheduled, or even expected."

Katie's easy going wisdom, Jennifer's honesty about her neurotic and controlling behavior, and the beauty of Europe combine to make this a lovely memoir about holding on and letting go, about venturing into the unknown of life and making memories by living in the present vs. the past.

It brought back beautiful memories of my Memorial Day weekend in Paris with Eric as we huddled under our umbrella and got lost in the meandering streets, and it made me itchy to travel abroad and make memories with my own daughters.