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: 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 nature of invention

51cqphcrdl-_sy346_The Last Days of Night

Graham Moore

This is the story of the patent war between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse told through the eyes of a young patent attorney, Paul Cravath. Cravath—a real person–was hired by Westinghouse to defend him against 312 lawsuits filed by Edison over the invention of the light bulb and whether A/C or D/C will become the standard. Who will win is always in doubt. The stakes were high. The outcome would change the course of American innovation, industrialism, and even the practice of patent law forever.

“If <Edison’s patent> held, no one but Edison could manufacture and sell incandescent bulbs within the United States…. If Paul could not break the patent claim, Thomas Edison would have a monopoly on light itself.”

Paul Cravath believed, “It was not the job of a litigator to determine facts; it was his job to construct a story from those facts by which a clear oral conclusion would be unavoidable.”

Other real characters such as J.P. Morgan, Stanford White, Alexander Graham Bell, and Nikola Tesla populate this well-researched work of historical fiction.

 “Edison loved the audience. For him it was the performance. It was the crowd. …Westinghouse was different. He loved the products themselves. And he made them better than anyone. He is the ultimate craftsman, isn’t he? He didn’t want to sell the most light bulbs. He wanted to make the best light bulbs…Then there’s Tesla. He was the third leg in this tripod. He didn’t care a bit about Edison’s public, or Westinghouse’s products. No, Tesla cared only for the ideas themselves…. Telsa was his own audience, and his ideas were his product, for consumption by himself alone…. Once he knew he’d solved a problem, he moved on.”

A movie of version of this story is in the works with author Graham Moore writing the screenplay. Moore won his first Oscar for writing the screenplay for “The Imitation Game.” Actor Eddie Redmayne is set to star as Paul Cravath.

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Eddie Redmayne will play the lead in the movie.

If you have someone on your gift list who likes history, science, or the law, this might be just the thing. Of course, if those subjects interest you, you might want to read it before you give it away. Just sayin’.

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.

Love in the time of prejudice

lover1The Japanese Lover: A Novel

Fans of Isabel Allende will enjoy this sweeping story of forbidden love. Two women meet at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay area. Both are immigrants, but Alma was sent to the US during WWII by her Polish-Jewish parents to live with wealthy relatives. Irina is a young, frightened employee of Lark House from Moldova. Each has secrets that define them, their relationship to each other and to the rest of the large cast of characters here. Little by little, their secrets are revealed, making me turn pages long past my bedtime.
The overarching and lifelong secret love affair of Alma and the Japanese gardener, Ichimei, is set against the backdrop of nearly every twentieth century cultural and historic phenomena. The Holocaust. The internment of the Japanese-Americans in the US. Prejudice in all its forms. Aging and end-of-life issues. Love and sexuality. AIDS. All are explored with Allende’s trademark sensuous (often sensual) writing, not to mention her humanity and heart.

To give you a taste, here’s what Alma’s husband says about their unusual but tender marriage:

“There are always some necessary lies and omissions, just as there are truths it’s better to keep quiet about.”

Alma says this about her beloved Ichimei:

“Love and desire for him scorched her skin; she wanted to stretch her hands out across the table and touch him, draw closer, bury her nose in his neck and confirm it still smelled of earth and herbs…”

And here’s what Ichimei says about dying:

“If I were going to die in the next three days, what would I do during that time? Nothing! I would empty myself of everything but love.”

In the end, this is a sweet, sad, passionate love story–a romance–between two people who couldn’t be together in this world. It left me hoping that they would be able to find and love each other in the next.

 

 

Eleanor Roosevelt’s crowded marriage

loving eleanorFranklin, Eleanor, Sara, Lucy, Earl, Missy, Lorena, Daisy, and Joe. This was a very crowded and complicated marriage. FDR and ER were neither exclusive nor stingy with their affections. And then there was his mother, Sara. Franklin and Eleanor’s story and its accompanying scandals reminded me of another power couple that occupied the White House and our collective consciousness half a century later, Bill and Hillary.

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert is a well-researched, but fictional memoir of Lorena Hickok, a noted journalist who became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Very close. Three thousand revealing and personal letters between the two, that had been archived it the FDR Library, were unsealed ten years after Hickok’s death in 1968. They have provided much source material for both biographers and this fictionalized narrative. They leave little doubt as to the nature of their relationship, at least for a time.

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Lorena Hickok, aka “Hick,” tells this story.

But let’s back up a bit. Before FDR was elected President, Eleanor feared disappearing into his shadow. Remember, this was a time when women in general and First Ladies in particular occupied strictly defined roles. It was during the first presidential campaign that Hickok penned a series of articles about “The Reluctant First Lady,” highlighting ER’s concerns, her interests, and the projects that she desperately wanted to continue. It was “Hick” who encouraged Eleanor to find ways to change the role of First Lady into one in which she could thrive and find fulfillment. ER began holding weekly press conferences with female journalists, writing the widely syndicated “My Day” newspaper column, and shedding light on a host of women’s issues.

While FDR had several well-documented affairs, he was somewhat vindictive when it came to Eleanor’s dalliances. Earl Miller, ER’s hunky body-guard was bought (and married) off. Hick was reassigned to a traveling job during the Depression that kept her out of Washington D.C. And Joe Lash, a younger political activist and journalist beau was sent to the Pacific during WWII. Albert calls this FDR’s “left hook.”

The Roosevelts are of course, larger than life and endlessly fascinating. I’ve read Lucy by Ellen Feldman, about Eleanor’s former secretary who had a decades-long affair with FDR and who was with him when he died at Warm Springs. And I’ve seen the amusing Bill Murray movie, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which focused on FDR’s relationship with his distant cousin, Daisy. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the Roosevelts added to my picture of this influential family. However, this book has piqued my curiosity and put more books onto my always growing to-read list, including historian Blanche Wiesen Cook’s authoritative three volumes about Eleanor and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the couple. Then there are ER’s own books.

More than anything though, this book illustrates once again, that no one can really know what goes on in inside a marriage or the human heart. The power struggles and compromises that go on behind closed doors even–or especially–in the most public of couples, remain hidden from view. In addition, no matter how we may idolize and deify them, these icons are still quite human, with all the accompanying wants, needs, desires, and limitations. Knowing their struggles and private demons, especially when set against the times in which they lived, makes me appreciate them more and softens my heart. After all, who am I to judge?

What did you do in the war, Mom?

nightingaleThis book put me right back in occupied France during WWII. I told myself I wouldn’t go back there after reading Sarah’s Key, All the Light We Cannot See, and In Enemy Hands. And yet here I am. Again.

This was my parents’ war. Is that the draw? I knew their stories of lost loved ones and rationing. A recipe for butterless, sugarless, eggless cake. No silk stockings. Hemlines raised to use less fabric. My mom worked as a Rosie the Riveter. My dad joined the Amphibians and served in the South Pacific. But still, the war wasn’t here at home. Enemy soldiers weren’t living in our homes. History classes, television documentaries, and movies provided the rest of my knowledge. For the most part, it was the leaders’ stories I learned.  And mostly it was the story of men.

What all the novels here do is tell the very personal stories of the women forced to cope with the circumstances and deprivations over which they had little control. Their very survival was an act of courage and determination.

In Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale are two estranged sisters, one of whom has survived to old age. She is telling the story for the first time. It is particularly a story of how two very different young women coped with the brutal Nazi occupation of their small village in France. There were few men left, because they’d all gone off to fight. When France surrendered (or reached an “agreement” with Germany) they were imprisoned elsewhere. One sister’s day-to-day interactions with Nazi officers forcefully billeted in her home are intimately and vividly contrasted with the other sister’s choice to join the resistance, leading downed pilots over the Pyrenees to safety.

“Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer to his question. “Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”

Secrets and intrigue abound here as Hannah tells of the heroic and many times ignored or misinterpreted efforts of women to provide for and protect their loved ones, not to mention to fight against their own Vichy government and Germany. Recommend.

Imagining a future

In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson stretched the concept of fiction and challenged readers by exploring multiple futures for her protagonist, Ursula Todd. In A God in Ruins, she does something similar for Ursula’s brother, Teddy, an RAF bomber pilot during WWII. Atkinson calls this a “companion piece” and not a sequel. A master of the omniscient point of view, the author provides the reader with recollections of the past and glimpses of a future. Each character is clear and memorable and gives voice to witty and often conflicting insights. I knew these characters and cared about them. Even the disagreeable ones. Teddy’s daughter is difficult (to say the least) and yet, “He loved Viola as only a parent can love a child, but it was hard work.”
The reader can’t help but notice that after Londoners survived the horrors of The Blitz, Teddy and the RAF inflicted the same kind of terror and destruction on the cities and citizens of Germany. According to the author, bombing crews “… experienced some of the worst combat conditions imaginable and fewer of half of them survived.” Death was everywhere and while he doesn’t talk about it with his family,

Teddy “…made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long dark watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to be kind, to live a good quiet life…And that would be his redemption.”

As I approached the end of the book, I began to worry about what was coming for my beloved and now elderly Teddy Todd. While there is a conceit, Kate Atkinson is so skillful and caring toward her characters that I enjoyed every moment of Teddy’s life.

Rising against the wind

blog circling the sunThe noted pilot, Beryl Markham, is just four years old when her mother leaves her in Africa with her father. That loss and her unconventional upbringing in the British colony there leads her into an early and disappointing marriage at sixteen and several notorious affairs. She defies gender role expectations throughout her life, becoming a horse-trainer and bush pilot, the first female to do so.

“I had forged her myself, out of brokenness, learning to love wildness instead of fearing it. To thrive on the exhilaration of the hunt, charging headlong into the world even—or especially—when it hurt to do it.”

She marries a second time and has a fragile child, who must be left behind in England with her now estranged husband (Markham) and monster-in-law when she returns to Kenya, the place she considers home.
Her life coincides with that of Karen Blixen (“Out of Africa”). She even has a long running romance with Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton. So you see Beryl’s life is anything but orthodox.
Circling the Sun is beautifully written. Author Paula McLain allows the reader to feel what Beryl feels when she’s training, riding and watching horses. Markham intuits what is needed, a skill that makes her a natural as a pilot.

If you love stories of strong women–or loved “Out of Africa”– you should definitely add this one to your “to read” list. You might also consider West with the Night a memoir by Markham herself and Straight on Till Morning, by Mary S. Lovell. I’ve just added them to mine.

blog west with the nightblog straight on till morning

“There are things we find only at our lowest depths. The idea of wings and then wings themselves. An ocean worth crossing one dark mile at a time. The whole of the sky. And whatever suffering has come is the necessary cost of such wonders, as Karen once said, the beautiful thrashing we do when we live.”

Historical fiction? Regency romance? Wilma’s got you covered!

enemy-hands memory1

My friend, author Wilma Counts just sent this message. I am posting it here as a favor. My book club read her compelling IN ENEMY HANDS last fall and loved it. You can find out about her other wonderful books and read her blog here: https://wilmacounts.wordpress.com/

“My editor and his staff tell me I am not using social media enough to get the word out about my books. (They don’t seem to know what a techno klutz I am!)  Anyway, I figure if I can persuade even half of my friends and former students to each tell just TWO of THEIR contacts about my new releases–one in Sept, 2014, and on coming in March), I could be on the bestseller lists in no time!  Check me out on Amazon or at Wilma Counts–Author. And do let me know  what you think.”