Book review: The art of making something from nothing

lucy-bartonMy Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout  has written a gentle book with no real plot or movement except back and forth in time. A young mother and writer is hospitalized for many weeks with a serious but undiagnosed illness.  At her husband’s request, her estranged mother comes to stay with her–in her hospital room. She’s there 24 hours a day, refusing the cot she is offered, refusing to leave, or to sleep.  This visit—the only way her mother seems capable of saying, “I love you,” –brings up painful memories of the unhealthy, dysfunctional family they shared. Lucy realizes “… how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts.”

While there, the mother relates stories of other people’s unhappy marriages, seemingly unaware of her own.  Lucy reflects, “I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the cervices of my mouth, reminding me.”

When her mother-in-law reminds her that she “comes from nothing,” it rankles her. “But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.” Indeed, the “nothing” others may see is the stuff from which we create our lives. Nothing isn’t nothing.

School and books save Lucy. As she writes her novel, her mentor assures her, “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Her advice is to go “… to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” And she does.

While Strout’s writing is poignant and evocative, I was left wanting more of a pay-off or big reveal. I remember having similar thoughts when I read Olive Kittridge. Have you read either of these? What did you think? Is there enough here to make a good story?

olive
Also an Emmy winning HBO mini-series

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: Just who is truly mad and truly guilty?

514kx79myl__sy346_Truly Madly Guilty

First, let me express my love/hate for Liane Moriarty’s ability to suck me in and keep me reading just one more chapter. She made me care about the characters and then she dropped bread crumbs of information at just the right moment. In short, it is pacing perfection.  Or torture.  I like to read to fall asleep and this one kept me awake.  Not scary, but certainly compelling.

Erika and Clementine’s friendship has always been an uneven, uneasy one. As children, Clementine’s do-gooder mother pushed her to be friends with Erika, whose family life was a dysfunctional mess. Erika became a project of sorts that Clementine often resented.   Clementine, a cellist, has always been a little absent-minded, disorganized, and careless. Where did that ice-cream scoop disappear to? Erika, an accountant, is neat, orderly, and conscientious–maybe a little OCD. There is a sense, now that they are adults, that the traits they developed were perhaps in response to one another, as much as anything else.

Something awful (tragic? scandalous?) has happened at a neighborhood barbecue. We aren’t sure what, but it has deeply affected Erika and Clementine. Clementine has taken to giving little motivational speeches about “One Ordinary Day.” Erika has a gap in her memory about the event and keeps trying to fill in that breach. What did she do? Was she to blame?

The question of who’s mad and who’s guilty will lead you through the book. You will suspect just about everyone of something along the way. Moriarty artfully ends each chapter with some little hook to make you read on. And because all these original characters (like the former pole-dancer who is now something of a real estate mogul) tell their own sides of the story, you may have to read a few more chapters to satisfy your curiosity. I just couldn’t stop.

Their spouses, children, parents, and neighbors all play a role and each one feels a bit of guilt for what happened. And I’ll bet you’ll be both surprised and touched by how each person—from the youngest to the oldest– responds in their own way. Recommend.

Others books by Liane Moriarty you might enjoy. I did.

 

Book review: This Ruby is a gem

41rzlymttxl-_sy346_This the third of Kate Atkinson’s books I’ve read and as in reading the others (Life After Life and A God in Ruins) I discovered it takes a nimble mind, some patience, and a lot of trust. The author likes to play with the traditional rules of story arcs, time, and points of view. She weaves back-stories and other bits of ephemera into the narrative, picking up a thread here and there. This book includes “footnotes” which are referenced as the story moves ahead and tell stories of secondary characters who likely think they are main characters. And as is so often the case, the family secrets they reveal hold keys to understanding seemingly inexplicable behaviors.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum begins in 1951–at the very beginning– with Ruby Lennox, the omniscient narrator saying, “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock…I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter…my mother was pretending to be asleep—as she often does at such moments.”

Atkinson is expert in infusing her writing with period details, especially the habits, standards, and expectations of middle class women of that time in England. However, I was glad to have read this on my Kindle so that I could easily look up unfamiliar British slang and products of 1950s and 60s. Ruby’s description of her beloved Mobo horse tickled me, as my husband’s Mobo is one of our prized possessions.

mobo
Mobo

I’m torn between advising you to savor this book or read it fast. There are several generations of characters to keep straight and if you wait too long between readings–as I did– you might forget who the heck they are. Another advantage to the Kindle–its x-ray feature allows you to easily backtrack. I think a long day of travel or a rainy weekend in a comfy chair would be just about right.

Reading Atkinson—at least these three books—reminds me of looking at a pointillist painting. The big picture doesn’t emerge until you step back from it. Nonetheless, her wry humor and use of language are definitely worth the effort.

As a newborn in the nursery, Ruby tells us:

 “We lie in our cots, wrapped tightly in the white cotton-cellular blankets, like promises, like cocoons waiting to hatch into something. Or little baby parcels.”

On discovering Catholicism with her friend:

 “I’m more than happy to help out—banking up good deeds with the Lamb, for although He is meek and mild He is also (inexplicably) part of the trio that can consign you to the Inferno.”

And imagery after a long, cold walk home:

“By the time we get back to the Shop there are frozen roses in our cheeks and little shards of ice in our hearts.”

After the loss of her sisters:

 “I’m an only child now with all the advantages (money, clothes, records) and all the disadvantages (loneliness, isolation, anguish). I’m all they’ve got left, a ruby solitaire, a kind of chemical reduction of all their children.”

And a difference of opinion:

 “’The past is what you leave behind, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’”

 

Book review: Why you want to catch flies, vinegar girl?

41ajuyjmvpl-_sy346_I’ve been reading and enjoying Anne Tyler’s books for decades, beginning with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. Her quirky, yet somehow recognizable characters always make me smile.

Vinegar Girl is no exception. It is a contemporary retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” and is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which respected and diverse authors take on Shakespeare’s best-known stories.

Here, Kate Battista finds herself stuck teaching preschool and running the house for her widowed, eccentric research scientist father and pretty teenage sister, Bunny. Being a scientist, her father has an efficient system for just about everything, from loading the dishwasher to doing laundry. He even thinks cooking just once for the entire week simply makes sense. Watch for his formula for “meat mash.” Naturally, Kate’s forthright and somewhat prickly manner means she’s almost always offending someone.

Trouble starts when Dr. Battista, who is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that could help millions, has his lifetime of research threatened by the imminent deportation of his foreign-born lab assistant, Pyotr. What to do? An arranged marriage, of course! Kate reluctantly agrees only after it is made clear that the marriage will only be on paper. They just need to convince the Immigration authorities. But then…

Tyler writes some funny and poignant situations around the issues of romance, getting acquainted, family dynamics, and feminism. It’s a comedy with a heart, to be sure.

Pyotr explains something about his country:

 “In my country they have a proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’”

This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country they say that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously…But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”

On Pyotr’s odd attempts at flattery:

“He had a foreigner’s tendency toward bald, obvious compliments, dropping them with a thud at her feet like a cat presenting her with a dead mouse.”

An excerpt from Kate’s big speech on men:

“Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”