Book report: Do you really want to know?

TruthOn its surface, this is a coming of age story. It’s told in the lively and distinct voices of three women–Willa and  Jottie Romeyn and Layla Beck–during the sultry summer of 1938 in the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. Annie Barrows’ makes readers swelter and seek one cool spot in the days before air conditioning.  We sit on the screened porch in creaking wicker chairs in the evening.  We feel the relief offered by the tiniest breeze and sweating glasses of iced tea.

In other ways though, The Truth According to Us is the story of how we all come to terms with the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts. Sometimes the truth hurts, even when those we love try to protect us.

Young Willa Romeyn introduces the story, almost as Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbird.

 “Everything that was to heave itself free of its foundations over the course of the summer began to rattle lightly on the morning of the parade. That was when I first heard of Layla Beck, when I began to wonder about my father, and when I noticed I was being lied to and decided to leave my childhood behind.”

At twelve, Willa is a voracious reader and has grown suspicious of her mysterious father’s frequent absences and the secrets being kept from her.

“If you’re going to unearth hidden truths, keen observing is your shovel.”

“It seemed so hard that I had to work out the answers on my own, but that’s what I had to do. I had to keep at it, finding out, guessing what would happen next, fighting for the right ending, trying to save them all.”

Willa’s Aunt Jottie is her surrogate mother. Jottie knows—or thinks she knows–the secrets and tries to protect Willa and her little sister Bird from them.  She tries to instill in them the Macedonian virtues of “ferocity and devotion.”

“If only Willa could have what I had, Jottie mourned. If only she could be so certain and proud. It was an illusion every child should have. And Willa was losing it, right before her eyes.”

Pretty, spoiled Layla Beck, a  Senator’s daughter, is sent here to grow up and earn her keep during the WPA era. She is tasked with writing the history of Macedonia for its upcoming sesquicentennial. She is soon confronted with conflicting versions of events and comes to a conclusion about history in general.

“A successful history is one that captures the living heat of opinion and imagination and ancient grudge.”

Those short weeks in West Virginia reveal “truths” about the town’s founder, the Civil War, bootleggers, the tragic death of young man years ago, and the price of family loyalty. Some of those lessons take a toll, especially on young Willa.

“I didn’t want to know everything anymore; I didn’t want to know anything.”

Nonetheless, the truth is I’d love to have sat on the Romeyn’s front porch sipping iced tea with the colorful residents of Macedonia that summer. Even in the heat.  I was sorry to say good-bye.

 

 

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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: 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: Just who do you think you are?

51ctthh6v4l-_sy346_The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

Fannie Flagg

I’ve been a Flagg fan for years and have always enjoyed the Southern charm, heart, and humor with which she writes. This book is no exception.

Sookie Simmons Poole is approaching sixty and has just married off her third daughter. She’s looking forward to a little time to herself—to tend her beloved birds and maybe read a book or take a trip with her darling husband. Lenore, her “delightfully eccentric” and domineering mother lives two doors down in the tiny Gulf town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Sookie worries that she carries the gene that has made many of her ancenstors “as batty as hell.” When Sookie receives a phone call followed by a registered letter it shakes her to the core. “Identity crisis” hardly covers the impact of the news she receives.

“Growing up with Lenore, she had always felt like a little brown wren, hopping along behind a huge colorful peacock.”

Meanwhile, readers are also getting acquainted with the Jurdabralinski family who ran the Phillips 66 station in Pulaski, Wisconsin in the years between two World Wars.  Their oldest girl, a free spirit named Fritzi, falls in love with flying. She learns to wing walk and fly as she barnstorms in shows around the Midwest in the early 1940s. When World War II arrives and all the men join the fight, Fritzi and her three sisters successfully run the filling station. Fritzi learns that the Airforce is looking for experienced women fliers to ferry airplanes around the country in order to free up male pilots for combat. Fritzi is one of the first to sign up to be a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) and becomes one of the more that 1000 female pilots to complete seven months of training. These brave women flew sixty million miles of operation flights including ferrying aircraft from factories to bases, flight instruction (both basic and instrument), towing targets for antiaircraft and aerial gunnery, among other duties. You can find out more here: http://wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp/

“It makes me so mad when all the newspaper reporters that come here only want to show the gals putting on lipstick or posing like models…all this phony baloney stuff.  If anybody thinks this is a glamorous job and that we are just in it for the fun, they haven’t watched them pull a friend out of a burning plane and die right in front of them.”

Sookie and Fritzi’s stories are woven together and resolve in a warm and surprising way. I  recommend not only this book, but also learning more about the WASPs, a forgotten chapter of women’s history that is only now being discovered.

Book review: Squabbles in the nest

the-nestThe Nest

by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Four adult children of the Plumb family are all planning on a large gift from the estate of their father, which they’ve taken to calling “The Nest” Their deceased father believed, “…that money and its concurrent rewards should flow from work, effort, commitment, and routine” and lived accordingly. For the most part, his children have lived differently.

According to the terms of the inheritance, each would get an equal portion when the youngest, Melody, turned forty. Until now, they have each been living their lives in anxious anticipation of a very large monetary gift. They’ve run up substantial debts which they have concealed from their spouses, knowing that the Nest would bail them out. However, their mother—still alive and now remarried—pays to hush up a tragic scandal involving Leo—their charming but untrustworthy brother. Trouble is, she pays it out of the Nest, which reduces their shares to a fraction of what they were expecting. They’ve made promises they simply can’t keep, debts they can’t pay, kept secrets and told lies that will now be exposed. What to do? How will they get out of the mess they’ve helped to create? Can they somehow convince their siblings that they are more deserving of a larger share? Can they trust Leo to repay the Nest?

Each character is well drawn with quirks and idiosyncrasies that let readers get to know them and their motivations. Even the secondary characters are fully realized. Sweeney alternates points of view masterfully, so that each character gets to plead their own case as the reader is drawn through this warm, fun, and satisfying read.

A few  examples of Sweeney’s fine writing:

 “Her resolve melted and her clenched knees unfurled like the petals of a ripening peony.”

“The quick pulse at the corner of her eye was beating as if there were tiny wings trapped beneath the skin.”

“…her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might cross the street ahead of her.”

If you enjoy listening in on family dynamics—especially when they aren’t your own–you might enjoy this book. You might even find yourself grateful, as I did, that you have the family you do.

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.

Finding forgiveness in our damaged little hearts

I come from a long line of optimists. My great-grandfather was a card-carrying utopian-socialist. (I have his card.) His daughter, my grandmother, was a Christian Scientist. My other grandmother believed in Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking.” You see, the art and habit of re-framing obstacles and looking on the bright side are in my DNA. Couple that with a rather Ozzie and Harriet childhood in the fifties and sixties, and you get relentlesAnne Lamottsly (doggedly, stubbornly) optimistic me.

Author Anne Lamott’s life and lineage were different (read: dysfunctional, self-destructive, a little crazy) and everything about her reflects that. Even so, she attempts to find grace no matter what life throws at her. Like most of us, she fails sometimes. This collection of essays demonstrates her struggle armed with her faith and intelligence as well as her sometimes dark and self-effacing humor. She is also that rarest of creatures (if we are to believe the media) a flaming liberal and a churchgoing, Jesus-loving Christian. Oh, and she swears a bit, too.

Small Victories starts with a critique of the Bible, saying what’s missing is a “Book of Welcome.” Come in, come in! It should say. God loves you! In her opinion, there’s way too much judgment and not enough hugs. Not nearly enough unconditional love, acceptance, and yes, forgiveness.

This collection also deals with grief. A lot. It seems someone is always dying. Family, friends, a beloved old dog. Life’s like that. To cope, Lamott takes long walks in the woods, prays, and attends church. She marches in peace rallies. She remains sober, binges on M&Ms, and tries online dating. She does all this while attempting to make her injured, angry little human heart forgive the people who have hurt or disappointed her. A few relatives and ex-Presidents are on her list. She reminds herself that if she–as imperfect as she is–is precious to God, then others–as imperfect as they obviously are–must be precious as well. Good stuff.

A few quotes:

“Forgiveness is the hardest work we do.”

“They say we are punished not for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive.” 

“I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Several members of my precious extended family–who run the gamut of religious and political persuasions, bless their hearts–agreed to read this as the first book in an online cousins’ book club. I think it was a good choice.

What should we read next?

Was she crazy or merely peculiar?

That’s the question author Bill Dedman tries to answer with Paul Clark Newell, Jr, a shirt-tail relative of the woman in question, Huguette Clark. Empty Mansions is well-researched and documented. They begin by telling readers the rags-to-riches story of Huguette’s tycoon father, W. A. Clark. From copper mines in Montana and the L.A. Philharmonic to how states choose their Senators, his impact is still being felt, even though I’d never heard of him.

However, Huguette, Clark’s youngest child is the focus of much speculation. She owned and meticulously maintained mansions around the country but rarely left her New York apartment, kept company only by her doll collection. The last years of her life were spent in a hospital room, even though she wasn’t ill.

She kept up a cordial correspondence with longtime friends, sending cash and presents amounting to millions of dollars. Her cadre of caregivers and assistants also received generous gifts. According to them, she was simply happier and more comfortable living by herself and limiting her personal interactions to those she knew.

Staff and friends
Mrs. Peri was Huguette’s nurse.

Still, the circumstances raised suspicion. Had she been coerced or manipulated? Had she been kept isolated by the small circle of people she trusted and let into her life? That’s what a few long-lost relatives seemed to think when they contested her will.

I read this because it was a book club choice. I might not have picked it up otherwise. But I found myself charmed by Huguette and intrigued by the questions the book asked. And of course the glimpse into how the 1% lives is fascinating.

You might like visiting this site where the authors have placed some background information and photos.

What’s next?

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After You by JoJo Moyes

My book club chose to read this after finishing the author’s very moving and successful Me Before You. We simply needed to know if Lou Clark ever got a happy ending. The answer is well, sort of.

The book picks up a year or so after Will’s death. Publicity surrounding his controversial decision impacts everyone connected–even Lou’s family.  Lou moves to Paris for a while, but is still struggling to find a way forward. She returns to England and, with money Will has left her, buys a little flat in London and works unhappily in an airport bar. The flat is just a place to sleep. She hasn’t even properly moved in until an unexpected and troubled young girl claiming ties to Will shows up. Out of loyalty to Will, she feels obligated to become involved. And that makes all the difference.

Well, that and the fact that when she falls off her roof she has a “meet cute” with a hunky paramedic.

Moyes has said that this sequel was hard to write because so many people loved Lou and had so many expectations for how her life should turn out.  She understood that some people wouldn’t like it, no matter what she wrote and had to write the story that she felt was true to the character.

Granted, Me Before You is a hard act to follow. While After You is not quite as compelling, it is satisfying. Moyes does a beautiful job of setting the reader in the midst of family and personal struggles as Lou makes uneven progress through her grief. There is humor and sadness and tension and love and letting go. I recommend it if, like me, you need to know the rest of the story.