Book report: What will the neighbors say?

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Fannie Flagg never fails to find humor and wisdom in everyday life and I am never disappointed when I pick up one of her books. The Whole Town’s Talking is no exception.

The book begins quietly with Swedish immigrant, Lordor Nordstrom advertising for a bride to join him on his dairy farm in Missouri. Katrina Olson, recently arrived from Sweden herself, reads the ad in Chicago and comes for a visit. Lordor is smitten, but wisely awaits the verdict of the women of the community.

 

“It was a look in her eye that certain immigrants recognized in one another. A look of hope and determination, almost as it she was gazing past him, far into the future.”

Lordor and Katrina marry and build a community that eventually becomes the town of Elmwood Springs. Their story reminded me of my own Swedish and German immigrant ancestors who settled in Minnesota, Ohio, and Missouri. They relied on one another and their neighbors when they first arrived here.

“You depended on them for your very survival. It didn’t matter if you liked some more than others. They were your neighbors.”

And the neighbors do talk. And talk. We soon discover that the conversations go on beyond death, as we listen in on residents of Still Meadows Cemetery reconnecting and chatting amongst themselves. They enjoy visits from loved ones they left behind and they remark on some hard-won life lessons.

“I think most people are confused about life, because it’s not just one thing going on… It’s many things going on at the same time. Life is both sad and happy, simple and complex, all at the same time.”

But every once in a while, one of the voices at Still Meadows goes silent and is never heard again. Where do they go? It’s a mystery.

The book also tracks the growth and eventual demise of small-town America, from 1889 through 2020 with references to wars, music, technology, and the arrival of Wal-Mart. The changing times have some residents of Elmwood Springs worried.

“Macky was glad he and Norma had grown up when they had. They had come of age in such an innocent time, when people wanted to work and better themselves… Each generation had become a weaker version of the last, until we were fast becoming a nation of whiners and people looking for a free ride—even expecting it.”

Of course, the young people feel differently.

“… people are so much more tolerant and accepting of everything now: different races, different religions, different lifestyles… Life is so much easier that when you were growing up, and women are just doing everything, and now with the Internet, well…the whole world has changed. Honestly, I have to say I grew up in the very best time possible.”

I was also charmed when Flagg mentioned Elmwood Spring’s connection the WASPS, the fine female pilots she wrote about in The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.

The takeaway lesson here is “It takes time and lot of suffering, but sometimes, when you least expect it, life has a strange way of working out.” Readers can count on Flagg for a happy ending, even when it happens in the most unlikely of ways. You just never know…

“It may take a while, but everybody gets what they deserve, eventually.”

Fannie Flagg
Author, Fannie Flagg

Book report: War comes to a small town in Sussex

The Summer Before the War has been51eS2lPk4cL._SY346_ on my “to be read” shelf since I heard author, Helen Simonson interviewed on NPR some time ago. I’d enjoyed her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I found to be simply charming and have recommended often.

Now I can recommend her second novel to you, especially if, like me, you were a fan of “Downton Abbey.” This book is not set on a grand estate, but rather in the town of Rye in Sussex, just before England enters World War I.

We meet liberally-educated and well-traveled, Beatrice Nash, whose father has recently died. She arrives in Rye, still grieving, to take a position teaching Latin as she seeks to gain independence from her family who controls what little money she has inherited. Already in her early twenties, she has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Moreover, as a woman in 1914, she is thwarted at every turn by convention, pettiness, hypocrisy, and prejudice embodied by landladies, solicitors, and small town gossips. Through Beatrice, we are also introduced to a cast of artists, progressives, and a few gypsies who challenge the status quo with their kindness, courage, intelligence, and heart. Beatrice even finds love.

I admire Simonson’s skill at immersing readers into the landscape and conflicts of this time and place. Every well-chosen detail does double duty, informing character or enhancing tension. Simply a pleasure to read. Recommend.

 

 

 

Book Report: Do you like books about books?

61U9VpPvDULIn my previous life as an elementary school teacher and reading specialist, one of my professional principles was the importance of reaching students where they were. To hook them somehow, by attaching what they were interested in to what we were doing in class. Spiders. Trains. Kittens. Dragons. Whatever. I also knew that if they disliked reading, I just hadn’t found the right book. Yet.

I still believe that everyone ought to be reading and recent research seems to suggest that reading books prolongs our lives. Readers live longer! It also makes us happier and more empathetic, not to mention giving us somewhere to go when we’re stuck where we are.

With that in mind, I find books about books doubly intriguing. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and The Little Paris Book Shop are examples. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald is the latest in this sub-genre, and while charming, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Perhaps because it was translated from the original Swedish? Whatever its imperfections, it was good enough to keep me reading to see that the small cast of characters achieved their own happy endings.

Summary: Amy is elderly and lives in tiny Broken Wheel, Iowa. Bookworm Sara is younger and works at a bookshop in Sweden. They become pen pals in the snail mail sense. When Sara travels to Iowa to visit Amy, she is unexpectedly thrown into the center of small town life. She connects with the somewhat reluctant residents of Broken Wheel over books. She finds herself, and because it’s a novel, she finds love.

Like me, Sara believes that there is a book out there for everyone. Readers will probably appreciate the list of books and authors mentioned in the book that the author has included added at the end. She’s also given us the unique book classifications that Sara uses to help readers decide what to read: “Sex, Violence, and Weapons,” “Short but Sweet,” “For Friday Nights and Lazy Sundays,” “Unhappy Endings,” and “Happy Endings When You Need Them.”

Sara made it her mission to connect people with just the right book. Not a bad reason to read this book, if you ask me.

Are there other books about books that you’ve enjoyed? Kindly share in the comments.

 

Book report: Entering Christina’s world

 

 

A teacher once pointed out that the young woman in Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, was a real person who couldn’t walk and whose entire world was the house in the distance and the field surrounding it. Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World  expands my appreciation of this famous painting by letting Christina Olson tell her own story in a first-person, present-tense narrative that immersed me deeply into her life.

Christina is stricken as a child by an unknown illness that leaves her unable to walk without stumbling awkwardly. She recovers but becomes more and more disabled as time goes by. As an adult, she rarely leaves her chair on the ground floor of her three-story house. She defiantly refuses a wheel chair, preferring to scrape her wooden chair around the kitchen to prepare meals for her parents and brothers. She crawls on her elbows when she wishes to go elsewhere, even to the home a friend a mile away.

“I wonder, not for the first time, if shame and pride are merely two sides of the same coin.”

“To me using a wheelchair would mean I’ve given up, resigned myself to a small existence inside the house… I see it as a cage…I am willing to risk injury and humiliation to move about as I choose…

She cuts herself off from many well-meaning neighbors in the nearby town of Cushing, Maine.

 “These neighbors leach pity the way a canteen of cold water sweats in the heat. The slightest inquiry is freighted with words unsaid. Worried about you…feel sorry for you…so glad I’m not you.”

When a young Andrew Wyeth appears at her door, she reluctantly lets him take over a room upstairs as a summer studio. He returns every summer to paint the fields, the farm, the house, the rooms, her brother, and her. He alone seems to see her beyond her infirmity and her crankiness.

Wyeth tells Christina…

“…I think you’re used to being observed but not really…seen. People are always concerned about you, worried about you, watching to see how you’re getting on. Well-meaning, of course, but–intrusive. And I think you’ve figured out how to deflect their concern, or pity, or whatever it is, by carrying yourself in this ‘–he raises his arm as if holding an orb–‘ dignified, aloof way….Like the Queen of Sweden…Ruling over all of Cushing from your chair in the kitchen.”

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Author Christina Baker Kline

Kline researched the very real people and places depicted to create a sensitive, insightful, and thought-provoking exploration of a familiar image. Recommend.

Book review: The lies that bind

51xLRaJHsxL._SY346_Ann Patchett is one of my favorites. Her ability to place a reader into a scene and inside the heads and hearts of her characters is masterful. She is funny, perceptive, and even-handed as she tells this family saga from deep inside.

The first words of Commonwealth plunge us into a christening party for little Franny Keating. Bert Cousins is an uninvited guest who arrives with a huge bottle of gin. Franny’s L.A. cop dad, Fix Keating, her pretty mother, Beverly, and Bert set the whole story in motion when after a few too many glasses of orange juice laced with that gin, Beverly kisses Bert. Or he kisses her. It hardly matters. Divorce and the inevitable blending of two families ensue. The six children spend summers together in Virginia with minimal supervision from Beverly and Bert.

“The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”

Those summers of running amok lead to a tragedy that the children witness, and the details of which they keep secret. That secret both shatters and binds them. Everyone involved is affected by the event, not least of all Franny. At twenty-something, she’s a law school dropout and cocktail waitress with a degree in English. She meets and falls in love with—or perhaps in awe of—a famous novelist. Like Scheherazade, she entertains Leo Pozen with the story of those raucous long-ago summers, including the secret. He is inspired by her tale, and uses it as the basis for a new novel, which becomes a bestseller and years later, a movie.

Now in midlife, the children are rocked by the public disclosure, but are still bound by the love and responsibility they share toward each other and their now aging parents and step-parents.

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Author, Ann Patchett

“‘People are scared of the wrong things, Fix said, his eyes closed. ‘Cops are scared of the wrong things. We go around thinking that what’s going to get us is waiting on the other side of the door: it’s outside, it’s in the closet, but it isn’t like that… For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.’”

I recommend Commonwealth and these two others by Patchett. Enjoy!

Book review: Between father and son

511ktu-msbl-_sy346_Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is an earnest and fervent warning from Coates to his son and in reading it, I felt his urgency in trying to protect the life–“the body” — of his teen-aged son. Three long essays detail why being black in America is dangerous in ways that those who are not black can never fully appreciate.

Coates understands the reality. He could spend years educating himself, developing a career, acquiring assets, being responsible, and one racist act could end it all. He cites examples from history, the news, and from his own life.

Rather than trying to summarize his thoughts, I’ll let Ta-Nehisi (tah-nuh-hah-see) speak for himself.

The big message:

“…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know… Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you… You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Race is a social, not a biological construct:

“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissident; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

No sudden moves:

“Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals… It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.”

 “Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”

No escape:

“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

  “We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. …my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not escape.”

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Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic.

I recommend this book as a brief walk in another person’s shoes. I think you’ll find it both troubling and enlightening, as I did.

Book review: Missing your “Daily” fix?

daily-showThe Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests

Chris Smith

If you love and still miss your nightly fix of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, you will probably want to read this compendium of how Jon and his staff rebuilt “a little nothing cable show.” The format of the book is unusual. Author Chris Smith conducted interviews and presents those with only a smattering of context and connective tissue written by him. He also includes clips from the show. It’s a bit like reading a Ken Burns documentary.

Jon wasn’t the most likely person to replace Craig Kilborn. He’d had a few failures, a few attempts to find himself comedically. And when he took over, there were some ruffled feathers among some of Kilborn’s staff. You see, Jon had ideas of his own about the tone and direction of the show. Under Jon’s leadership, writers would refocus their attention from silly people on the fringes, to the people with power–namely politicians and the media.

“The tone of The Daily Show could be sarcastic and adversarial, but it generally wasn’t cynical or snarky…The humor was always from a point of view that held out a hope that the world could be improved, and I think that tone was essential to its success.” ~James Poniewozik, televison critic

Readers are also reminded of what was happening back then, culturally. “The anchors of the real news were still a trio of white male eminences… But the network news hegemony had been rattled by the arrival of CNN, especially its coverage of the 1990 Gulf War. Now Fox News and MSNBC—both launched, coincidentally within months of the Daily Show’s 1996 debut…And a wised-up, postmodern generation of viewers was hungry for what the Daily Show would soon deliver.”

In addition to the behind the scenes “how the sausage gets made” details, readers are also reminded of the personalities, tragedies, disasters, and political fights that Jon and his team of writers, producers, and correspondents helped viewers see more clearly through satire. Indecisions 2000 -08. 9/11. W. Mess O’Potamia. Sarah Palin. WMDs. The financial meltdown. Anthony Weiner.

In Jon’s words:

“We were serious people doing a very stupid thing, and they were unserious people doing a very serious thing, and that juxtaposition really landed.” 

 “…the show always did best when it existed in the space between what was presented as public policy and the strategizing that went into creating it. That was the defining thread of the show, that sense that we were being sold something.”

“If your world does not include enough access to different people, and their world does not include enough access to you, you are speaking from ignorance.”

Correspondents conducting field pieces interviewed real people who really believed the things they were saying. Interviewers confronted them with the contrary view in a humorous way, and then let the tape roll, giving full voice their (contradictory, hypocritical, sometimes scary, sometimes hilarious) perspective. Daily Show alums include Samantha Bee, Lewis Black, Steve Carell, Nancy Walls Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Assif Mandvi, Olivia Munn, John Oliver, Rob Riggle, Mo Rocca, Kristen Schaal, and Larry Wilmore. All of them give credit to Stewart for his mentorship in building their careers.

“I found out…that I had a political point of view…I don’t think I would have done that if Jon hadn’t shown me a way to do it and still by joyful and inventive about it, rather than being finger-waggy.” ~Stephen Colbert

“…because now all I want is to part of something that’s smart, silly, and has heart at the same time. Why can’t everything have all three?” ~Al Madrigal

Sure, this is a book for fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, but it’s also a tutorial in how to build a team to do important work while having fun. It’s a bit long, but I never once thought of giving up. Recommend.

“He started out to be a working comedian, and he ended up an invaluable patriot. He wants his county to be better, more decent, and to think harder.” ~David Remnick. Editor in chief, the New Yorker

 

Book review: A book for what ails you

paris-bookshopThe Little Paris Bookshop

by Nina George

Are you in need of enchantment? A long vacation? Good food? Wine? A little romance or the chance of finding it again? Are you in need of a remedy for a small sadness?

Kindly come in. Watch your step.

Jean Perdu, the middle-aged proprietor of The Literary Apothecary has just the thing. His shop is actually a barge on the bank of the Seine and his books are organized by emotion and the needs of the readers. “Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They looked after people.”

 “I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor or intangible. The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end. Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought, and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion. Or those birthday morning blues. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that.”

On the power of reading good books:

“…reading makes people impudent, and tomorrow’s world is going to need some people who aren’t shy to speak their minds…”

“Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book…he saw freedom on wings of paper.”

But the love of books and the bank of the Seine are just the beginning of this story. When Perdu finds a poignant, twenty-year-old love letter in an old kitchen table, he impulsively unmoors his bookshop and sets off on a quest. As he’s leaving, Max Jordan, a young, reclusive author, jumps aboard.  Yes, it’s a road trip, but the “road” ends up being the system of rivers and canals in France. Along the way, they take on another older man, Salvatore Cuneo, who has been searching for his lost love for decades. So, it is love—or the possibility of love—that sends all three men on this quest. There is a literary mystery to be solved as well.

“We cannot compel anyone to love us. There’s no secret recipe, only love itself. And we are at its mercy—there’s nothing we can do.”

What better place to pursue a quest than the water- and roadways between Paris and Toulon? Author, Nina George’s lyrical and sensuous descriptions will draw you into every village and scene, every meal and glass of wine, every sunset and every tango.  Deep sadness and great love are expressed throughout the book with warmth and compassion. Themes of love and loss, healing and hope permeate this luscious read.

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Author, Nina George

“All of us preserve time. We preserve the old versions of the people who have left us. And under our skin, under the layer of wrinkles and experience and laughter, we, too, are old versions of ourselves. Directly below the surface, we are our former selves: the former child, the former lover, the former daughter.”

I found this book to be perfectly charming. It reinforces the healing power of books and time, while also reminding us not to shut ourselves away, but to live in the world, to really experience it. It also made me want to book a river cruise in France. Or at least drink in the sunset and some good wine with someone I love. Recommend.

Some lighter reading, now and then…

My Best Friend's Girl by [Koomson, Dorothy]        Landline: A Novel by [Rowell, Rainbow]

 

Both these books feature young women, both focused on their successful careers, but with personal lives that are a bit of a mess. One is unmarried and the other married with two little girls. Both books demonstrate the power of even lighter fiction to show us what is true about love, sacrifice, friendship, trust, jealousy, and regret. You know, the big stuff.  And both allow characters to hear loved one’s voices from the past.

In My Best Friend’s Girl, BFFs Kamryn and Adele become understandably and bitterly estranged when Kamryn discovers that Adele’s daughter Tegan, was fathered by Kamryn’s fiancé. After years of silence between them, Adele dies but not before exacting a promise from Kamryn that she will care for and adopt now five-year-old Tegan. Kamryn’s life and priorities are turned upside down when motherhood is thrust upon her, a role she never aspired to. That role is made even more difficult by grief. Letters from Adele add a poignant touch to this angst-y but heartwarming story.

To her ex, Kamryn says:

“You’re the only person on earth I’d wanted to have a child with, and you did it with someone else. Someone I loved. That’s why I had to leave. I couldn’t stay when you’d made a baby, a new life, with someone else.”

And about Tegan:

“At least she knew she had me. I wasn’t her mum, but I was there.”

In Landline, the voice from the past arrives via an old yellow trimline phone found in the childhood bedroom of Georgie, a television comedy writer in Los Angeles and married mother of two. Because of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to finally get the show she and her writing partner (and too-handsome best friend, Seth) have dreamed about since college, she stays behind when her husband Neal and girls go to Omaha for Christmas. Georgie’s mother believes that Neal has left Georgie, which begins a cycle of self-doubt. Had she been a neglectful wife and mother? Had Neal really left her? With her cellphone dead, she calls Neal on the landline and the Neal who picks up is the Neal she fell in love with fifteen years ago. Before marriage, before children. She’s careful not to break the spell throughout a week as she and Neal talk every night on that old yellow phone. This Neal still loves her.

“Georgie,” he said. “I love you. I love you more than I hate everything else. We’ll make our own enough–will you marry me?”

“Somebody had given Georgie a magic phone, and all she’d wanted to do with it was stay up late talking to her old boyfriend.”

These two books appealed to me because I wanted to explore the concept of friendship in Women’s Fiction. How friends support each other and how far they’ll go to fulfill a promise or commitment is compelling, but so is the push and pull between those friendships and all our important relationships–marriage, parenthood, even work. The novel I’m working on focuses on some of those elements and I wanted to see how these authors handled them. I was not disappointed.

A river runs through Miller’s Valley

Are you an Anna Quindlen fan? I am. Her fiction and nonfiction both ring true for me. Her latest, Miller’s Valley, is no exception.

If you are writer, you will notice right away the skill with which she weaves this story, adding just the right evocative and telling details, while making you care about certain characters and be suspicious of others. She never insults your intelligence. If you’re not a writer, you may only notice how quickly and seamlessly she draws you into the story.

The protagonist, a reminiscent Mimi (Mary Margaret) Miller, tells a story beginning in the 1950s, when she is pre-teen in rural Pennsylvania. Through her telling, she drops only a few enticing hints along the way as to the eventual outcome. That’s the trail of breadcrumbs through the forest by which an expert novelist leads us, compels us, to turn the page. Quindlen is good.

The Miller’s family farm and life are under threat of increased flooding, a proposed government water project, not to mention constant financial concerns. Mimi’s own future is in doubt when her father has a stroke and can no longer subsidize their farming operations with his fix-it shop. Mystery surrounds the long-running feud between her nurse mother and reclusive aunt. Mimi shows herself to be smart, hardworking, and devoted to her family. She does make a mistake or two, however, and readers can only stand by and ache with her as she makes difficult choices, learns life lessons, and attempts to  move forward.

Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen, one of my faves

Lessons from childhood:

“I figured that most of being a kid consisted of eavesdropping, trying to figure older people out and understand what they were going to do next, because whatever they were going to do next was surely going to have some effect on you.”

“When I was a kid it seemed like God’s will was always that bad things happened, mostly to nice people. When Eddie got his scholarship, when LaRhonda’s father started to make a lot of money, nobody ever said that was God’s will. With Mr. Venti they mainly said it was dumb luck.”

About an unplanned pregnancy, Mimi didn’t yet think of as a baby:

“I thought of it as an anchor, dragging me down. I thought of it as my mother’s disappointment like a living thing, more real, than whatever has been inside of me…”

And about her beloved but troubled brother, suffering from PTSD after coming home from Vietnam:

“It’s a lot harder to save people that you think it is.”

The essence of family, friendship, love, and home shone through here and left me feeling satisfied. Recommend.