Wednesday, August 20, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See

A beautiful book...All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  It's a big book...530 pages, but
most chapters of the book are one, two, three, or four pages long, so it is an easy book to read.  The only thing to be aware of is that you need to pay attention to what year the chapter is referring to, because that changes frequently.

This is a World War II story about a blind French girl and a German boy and how all the events of the war impacted their lives.  Their paths don't intersect until close to the end of the book, however.



Marie-Laure became blind when she was six years old.  Her  mother had died in childbirth so she lived alone with her father in Paris where he worked at the Museum of Natural History as a master of locks.  Her father made a miniature of the neighborhood so that she could memorize the area and learn to get around.  Marie-Laure was twelve years old when the Nazis occupied Paris.  When that happened, her father took her and they moved south to Saint-Malo where her father had a reclusive uncle living, who took them in. When they left Paris, Marie-Laure's father was given a precious stone to keep safe for the Museum.

Meanwhile, in Germany, a young boy, Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, were living in an orphanage.  Werner was a master at radios, and when those in power learned of his talent he was sent to a special academy to learn more in order to serve Hitler's army.  After awhile, he was given the assignment of tracking the resistance.  And as time went on, Werner began to experience the moral dilemma of what he was doing.

This really is a beautiful book as it examines the cost of war and the impact on good and bad and making decisions. We read this book for one of my book groups and we agreed that although the title may refer to Marie-Laure's blindness, we felt more that it referred to all the good in the world.  Despite this being a book about war, it left one with the sense of goodness.  Quite an achievement!




Stella Bain

Stella Bain is author Anita Shreve's 17th novel!  That number is amazing!  I almost always enjoy her
novels, so was happy to see this newest one.  It is an easy read, yet not really a simple story.

When a young woman woke after two days in a field hospital in France during World War I, she did not remember who she was.  She thought that her name might be Stella Bain and she felt that she had worked as a nurse.  It quickly is apparent that she was an American, although she wore the uniform of a British nurse's aid.

"Stella has no idea where she has come from.  She senses it might be an unhappy place, a door she might not want to open.  But no one's entire past can be unhappy, can it? It might contain unhappy events or a tendency toward melancholy, but the whole cannot be miserable." 
After spending a month in the hospital, Stella began to work there as a nurse's aid.

"The sight is awful, the sound hollow.  Almost all the men die.
Sometimes, the doctors' screams are louder than the patients'."
During her off-time, Stella began to do sketches and portraits.  However, her private drawings are what make her wonder about her past. Then one day, she overheard a man mention the Admiralty, a building in London.  It triggered something for her.  After several months, Stella was granted a leave and she decided that she would go to London to the Admiralty to see if she could learn what significance it seemed to hold for her.

When Stella arrived in London, she was noticed by a kind woman named Lily.  Stella was quite ill and Lily had seen her leaning against a fence.  Lily asked Stella to her home and once there, Lily and her husband August took her in and cared for her.  August was a cranial surgeon and began to take interest in her.  August had been reading about "talk therapy" and was interested in seeing if it might help Stella recall her past.  He also had connections and was willing to take her to the Admiralty to help her discover what it was that seemed to draw her there.  And finally after several visits there over time, as Stella and August are leaving the Admiralty, someone calls out "Etna Bliss"...and Stella recognizes the name and then, the person who called it out.  And she remembers.

"'I have children', she says."

The story then goes back into time from 1896-1915, telling Stella's history. A history of lost love, domestic abuse, and betrayal.

The last chapter of the book takes place in 1930.

"How strange this happiness, the pain of it.  Aware of minutes, she remembers years.  She would remember every hour if she could.  To live a life and then recall that life in equal time.  What a thought" She wishes it could be done."







Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Calling Me Home

I really liked Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler.  It had that genealogy sense for me of learning about
one's past.

Calling Me Home is a story of long-ago, lost and forbidden love.  There are two main characters: eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle and thirty-something Dorrie.  Isabelle still lived on her own and had been going to Dorrie, a black hairdresser, for several years.  Over the years, the two women had grown close as they shared events in their lives.  One day, Isabelle asked Dorrie for a big favor.  She needed Dorrie to drive her from their town in Texas to Cincinnati for a funeral, and she needed to leave the next day.  Dorrie was willing to leave her worries and concerns about her two teenage children with her mother for a few days, and her relationship with her new boyfriend that she was afraid of committing to and get away, so she agreed to drive Isabelle to the funeral, not knowing anything about the trip.

The trip was a long one, and the two women had lots of time in the car to talk.  Isabelle began sharing some of her very guarded past with Dorrie.  It turned out that when she was a young girl, Isabelle had lived in Kentucky and had fallen in love with a young black man back in the 1930's...a very forbidden thing to do.  Through-out the journey to Cincinnati, Isabelle slowly shared the story of the relationship and the tragic way it ended. 

It was a really beautiful story and had a bit of a twist at the end.  Good writing!


A Friend of the Family and The Death of Bees

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein was recommended to me by another great reading friend. 
I found it to be a rather disturbing book, but certainly thought-provoking.  Another one of those books that made me wonder: what would I do/how far would I do for my children?

The book is the story of two families who had been close for years, raising their children in the same community and sharing life.  Pete Dizinoff was a well-respected internist, who was happily married, but having some difficulty with accepting where his nineteen year-old son Alec was heading in life.  Alec had quit school, moved into his parent's garage apartment and was hoping to make it as an artist.  As Pete struggled with his disappointment in Alex, his best friend's daughter, Laura, showed up.  Laura was ten years older than Alec, and had a horrific past.  Alec and Laura became friends and then got involved with each other.  Pete became obsessed with his fear of what would become of Alec under Laura's spell.  His obsession took over and resulted in tragedy in every area of his life.

This was an easy book to read and was well-written.  And, as I said, thought-provoking.

I found The Death of Bees on clearance.  It sounded interesting to me so I took a chance.  I'm glad that I
did.  It's a good book.  Written by Lisa O'Donnell, it is the story of two young sisters, Marnie and Nelly, who appear to be living on their own in their run-down housing..  Their neighbor, Lennie noticed that the girls parents hadn't been around for awhile.

Lennie slowly began to take the girls in, feeding them meals and helping out as he could.  The girls would only say that their parents were on a trip to Turkey.  Over time, others began to question where the girl's parents were.  Lies and stories continued, and eventually the truth began to come out.  Meanwhile, Lennie and the girls had formed their own "family", and did not want to be separated.

The book is narrated by the three main characters and is a very easy, quick read.





Written with fierce sympathy and beautiful precision, told in alternating voices, The Death of Bees is an enchanting, grimly comic tale of three lost souls who, unable to answer for themselves, can answer only for one another.
 




A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

I have been reading lots this summer and, as usual, am trying to catch up on my blogging
about the books.  I continue to try to do better....

 A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra has won numerous awards, including the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, the Washington Post Top Ten Books of the Year, and the 2013 Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction.  High Praise, indeed!

I have to admit that I initially had difficulty reading the book.  It is an ongoing reading challenge for me to read books that take place in other countries with characters that have unfamiliar names to me.  I have to make myself read those books.  Thus, it took me quite awhile to take on this book since it first came out.

The story takes place in Chechnya, and begins in 2004 when eight year old Havaa woke up in her  neighbors' home after the Russians had taken her father away and burned her home the night before.  The neighbor, Akhmed had found Havaa hiding in the woods with her suitcase that night.  Akhmed took Havaa to a hospital that had been abandoned and was being used to treat people by the lone doctor there, Sonja Rabina.  Sonja had no interest in getting involved with the care of the young girl.  

The story is told in such a way that the past histories of the characters end up interweaving with each other in the present.  It's a beautiful book. 


"Life: a constellation of vital phenomena-organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."



 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Yes, an older book, written in 1982, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler was one of my
book club's choices for this month.  I had read several of her books in the past, but had not read this one. 

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is a novel about families.  It is a painful story about a very sad family.  It opens with the mother, Pearl, who is eighty-five years old and dying.  Pearl was thinking back to when her husband had walked out on the family thirty-five years earlier, leaving her with three small children.  As the story progresses, it is clear that Pearl had issues...she would go off into rages with the children and be terribly abusive to them.  And as adults, the three children were clearly damaged by their mother's irrational behaviors.

The oldest child, Cody, was a cold, cruel child.  He was especially abusive to his younger brother, Ezra, who was Pearl's favorite child.  Ezra was a too kind, thoughtful child, who never stood up for himself.  Their sister Jenny was the middle child. As adults, Cody remained a cold cruel person.  Jenny became a pediatrician, seemingly always looking for the perfect family to be part of, as she went through marriages.  Ezra ended up owning a restaurant, where he set his mission to serve the food that people were homesick for:

" He'd cook what people felt homesick for-tacos like those from vendor's cars in California, which the Mexican was always pining after; and that wonderful vinegary North Carolina barbecue that Todd Duckett had to have brought by his mother several times a year in cardboard cups.  He would call it the Homesick Restaurant."

Ezra's lifelong goal and dream was to have a meal with his family where everyone stayed and finished the entire meal.  That certainly tells you something about this family!  He was always trying to arrange family meals when everyone could come together, but every meal ended the same. Someone became upset or angry and left before the meal was completed.    

Ms. Tyler's writing is beautiful (as in her other books).  An example:

"'Everything,' his father said, 'comes down to time in the end-to the passing of time, to changing.  Ever thought of that?  Anything that makes you happy or sad, isn't it all based on minutes going by?  Isn't happiness expecting something time is going to bring you?  Isn't sadness wishing time back again?  Even big things-even mourning a death: aren't you really just wishing to have the time back when that person was alive? Or photos-ever notice old photographs?  How wistful they make you feel?  Long-ago people smiling, a child who would be an old lady now, a cat that died, a flowering plant that's long since withered away and the pot itself broken or misplaced...Isn't it just that time for once is stopped that makes you wistful?  If only you could turn it back again, you think.  If only you could change this or that, undo what you have done, if only you could roll the minutes the other way, for once.'"

Great writing.  This wasn't one of my favorite books of Ms. Tyler's, but it was an interesting one, and certainly lent itself to thoughtful and animated discussion for our group.

The Kept

The Kept is author James Scott's first novel.  It's slightly dark, but a very good read.  The author does an excellent job of character development, so that I felt as if I knew the characters. Mr. Scott will be an author whose works I will look forward to reading again.



 The Kept takes place in the late 1800's in upstate New York.  It opens with midwife, Elspeth Howell, returning to her isolated home in a snowstorm following an extended absence to find that her husband and four of their five children have been murdered. As she searched through the house, she was shot.  Not knowing who was in the house, her twelve year old son, Caleb, had been hiding in the pantry closet and he thought that the three gunmen who had killed his family had returned.  Caleb had been in the barn when the family was killed, saw the gunmen, but was not found by them.  Elspeth was badly wounded and Caleb did the best he could to nurse her back to health, to the point that they could leave there.  Caleb's motive in leaving was to find the three gunmen and kill them.  Before they could leave, Caleb needed to take care of the five bodies that were left.  Because of the weather he was not able to dig in the ground, so he piled the bodies together and set them on fire.  The fire jumped to their home and burned it down also.

Thus began the journey for Caleb and Elspeth.  As they begin their trek through the snowstorms, the author brings in the history...Elspeth had worked in various towns as a midwife, and over the years, had taken each of their five children as newborns to raise as their own. At one point as they traveled, Elspeth casually mentioned to Caleb that he had been born in Watersbridge, the town where they were headed to search for the gunmen.  Why would Elspeth want to take Caleb there?  That is where she had stolen him away.  Perhaps was she trying for atonement in some way?

Once they finally got to Watersbridge, Elspeth disguised herself as a man in order to get a job, and perhaps also, so that no one might recognize her from twelve years ago. Caleb also got a job, working in a brothel cleaning and doing chores.  All the while, Caleb was searching for the three gunmen.  And one day, Caleb was recognized.

The author did a wonderful job with tying up the different stories going on in the novel.  The resolution of it all was sad, but an interesting twist, and seemed quite realistic.  It left me wondering about families and how issues are resolved.  Good book.