Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Writing

Just in case any of you are interested, I have been using an online tool to help me with my writing. Alas, I am hopelessly Midwestern and many of my childhood language picadillos are creeping back into my speech patterns since my retirement from teaching. I have found a great deal of comfort in being gently prodded by Grammarly which gives me hints as I write. If you would like to try this tool it may be found at the link below:  http://www.grammarly.com/grammarcheck

FRANKENSTEIN – MARY SHELLEY

The book club title for November at the library where I work was Frankenstein! Having always wanted to reread this classic I was excited. Over the almost 40 years since my first read, and several bad movies later, a residual positive feeling about the book remained but no clear memory of the plot and characters. The book is in reality nothing like any movie ever produced, that I have seen. This is a free novel on many sites so one can read it digitally if need be, which is how I started, knocking off a few pages on my phone in appointment waiting rooms and in traffic jams. Once into the story though, it was necessary to switch to my hardcopy because I like to flip back to scenes as I read and that is easier with a real book.

It was hard to start and it got put aside several times before I got serious and finally sat down one day to make myself pay attention. As soon as I got the idea of the introductory letters from a ship captain who had rescued Victor Frankenstein who was in pursuit of his monster into the frozen north, admittedly I skipped to Frankenstein's narrative and then went back and reread those letters at the end. That worked better for me.

Many people must be disappointed when they read Shelley's piece to find out there is no description of the actual creation of the monster, no body parts sewn together, no Igor, no electrical machine, and no castle. So very little survives of the novel in movies that I am actually shocked! It's like two different stories altogether. The book is actually more of a psychological character analysis. Victor Frankenstein is an eccentric character obsessed with chemistry and biology in his youth. In his laboratory, he creates and animates a humanoid being. However, the reader is not privy to exactly how he has done so. While resembling a man, it is huge with a yellowish cast to its eyes, and something very wrong about the skin. Immediately Victor is frightened and appalled at what he has done and flees leaving the creature to fend for itself. Wracked with horror and grief Frankenstein becomes mentally and physically ill for a while turning to his best friend Henry Clerval. Victor goes home only to find his younger brother has been murdered and the nanny executed for the crime, of which Victor knows she is innocent. It is apparent that the monster has turned on Victor and his family.

The narration of the creature is fascinating, and actually much more interesting than that of Victor. Even though he never seems to have a name he does refer to himself when talking with Victor as “your Adam,” and Frankenstein refers to him as, “the creature,” “the monster,” and by the end as, “the daemon.” The creature begins his life almost as an innocent, searching for nurturing, survival, and love. Instinctively he knows he is different and he keeps himself hidden while learning how to survive. He also learns about the ways of men and acquires language from a family he observes while hiding in the woods. Once he feels brave enough he exposes himself to people with drastic consequences. Experiencing violence, he learns to be violent, and to crave vengeance on humanity, particularly upon his creator.


In the ensuing years while the monster is hiding and learning to survive. Victor has gone on to try to live a normal life. Of course, he is eventually prey to his creature. I encourage all to reread this classic. If you put yourself in the proper frame of mind you will love it once again. Our discussion group was lively and I believe everyone there had come to appreciate the novel once again. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

MADDADDAM – MARGARET ATWOOD

I read as fast as I could to finish this creepy dystopian trilogy. Freakish, horrifying, disgusting, and so great! Actually, it all seemed somewhat plausible also, in a not-too-distant future. I'm a little sorry to be finished. I did have a “walking dead” type of feeling with this one. Although, not with zombies. The first two books covered corporate greed taking over the world, total rape of the environment, degradation of all religion and culture, and science run amok, all combining to culminate in the almost complete devastation of the human race.

Shall we move on? A core group of survivors made up of God's Gardeners and Maddaddamites band together, lead by Toby and Zeb from The Year of the Flood, in survival mode. How they try to survive is what gave me the fighting zombies feeling. While being reunited with Jimmy and his band of Crakers, they also must contend with strange weather, food scarcity, aggressive genetically altered animals, and avoid evil “painballers” who were corporate prisoners completely hardened into roving evil thugs.

As with the first two books there is plenty of backstory. I was both shocked and enthralled to find out that Zeb and Adam One from The Year of the Flood had been half brothers. Their father, before the flood, had been a clergyman whose sermons supported the corporations, revered the petroleum industry, and reviled the ecologists. The boys had hacked into their fathers accounts and emptied them. Knowing he was politically connected they had to separate and go into hiding. Zeb became Mad Adam and his brother Adam One. When it was safer they had reunited and founded God's Gardeners.

The survivors create a compound, but it is exceedingly hard to find and grow enough food and to stave off animals. Search parties need to look for other people, Jimmy, who keeps the Crakers in line is sick and may not live. So many problems! It occurs to Toby that their hope for survival may lie with the Crakers and she takes over their teaching. They have limited abilities to understand and so she begins her lessons through fables and myths. They must learn language, writing, and some form of history. Is humanity as we know it dead? Can a new society emerge, or will humans be replaced by artificial people? Even bigger than that is will the planet support life at all?

I have thought about watching the HBO movies based on these books, but I am afraid.


THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD – MARGARET ATWOOD

I rushed on to read this... what, companion maybe, to Oryx and Crake? It takes place at the same time so it is not a sequel. Anyway I was not disappointed. Atwood continues to say that what she puts in her novels are things that could happen or already have. Well, that's scary reading this trilogy! Once again Atwood begins her story at the end, after the “Flood” and proceeds to go backwards into the years prior. We once again see the strange gene-spliced creatures and the devastation. We begin this book with two women, one holed up in a sex club where she had been working, and one locked inside a spa.

This time however, instead of flashing back to look at the lives of the elite, the story resides in the Pleeblands, the communities outside of corporate protection, a land filled with sexual exploitation, lawlessness, hunger, and peril. It is painted truly as a scary place to live. Yet some people are there by choice. Those who see what might be coming, and those rebelling against the artificial protected societies. Oryx, Crake, and Jimmy are seen by the reader as background characters.

Twenty-five years before the plague, God's Gardeners are an eco-religious simple living group trying to stay under the radar of trouble, but preparing how they will survive when the end comes. They have predicted a catastrophe called “The Waterless Flood” coming and are dedicated to preserving as much healthy food and animal life as they can. Significant members of the Gardeners are called Adams and Eves followed by numbers. They are mostly people with scientific and medical knowledge and experience who have escaped from the corporations. The leader is Adam One and Eve Six is the alchemist/healer person. We also find in this book Zeb or Mad Adam that will serve to be the purpose of book three of the trilogy.

As the years count down (or up, or back?) we see the lives of Ren and Toby evolve via two distinctly different paths which are in themselves wonderfully enthralling stories. Also, we get to see the organization of the Gardeners which is very religious and includes doctrine, hymns, and sermons. The corporations own all intelligence, science, and math and rule the Pleeblands with paid troops of thugs and fear. By the time we get to the “Waterless Flood” we are left with the nuclear group that will survive and try to start a new civilization.


The scariest thing in the book? Giant brightly colored pigs with human brain tissue that can think, calculate, and fight back. (shiver) Oh, that and the huge blue genitalia of the male Crakers (sorry).

ORYX AND CRAKE – MARGARET ATWOOD

I was rereading this in late December (I first read it in 2003) so I could proceed to The year of the Flood and not be utterly lost. However, my mom was very sick and I forgot to finish my impressions. Just now getting back to my notes about this wonderful dystopian lit, although I don't think that is what Atwood calls her work. She seems to stick more to calling it “speculative fiction” writing what she truly thinks might happen to our world. With corporations running most countries, genetic altering and scientific experimentation going unfettered, it is hard not to fear outcomes such as she points to in her work.

In Oryx and Crake we follow the narrator called Snowman who believes he may be the only truly human survivor of a virus that has wiped out humans leaving behind all manner of strange genetically spliced animals and a tribe of human-like beings called Crakers. Of course, Snowman is lonely and despondent but he also sees himself as the caretaker of the Crakers who see him as some kind of deity. He tells them stories of a fictional “Oryx and Crake” to try to teach them things and in an attempt keep them safe. They have a simple intelligence and he needs some way to control them so he invents for them legends and ritual.

The book begins somewhat like many post-apocalyptic novels with destroyed buildings, cities under water, trashed technology everywhere, gutted computers, broken cars, nothing working, dust, dirt, danger...

While going on supply forages the reader sees, through Snowman's flash-backs, the world before the catastrophe. Terrible misery, violence, and poverty were obstacles for those who live out in the unregulated “pleeblands” while others lived protected by the gated corporation communities for which they worked. Families like Snowman's lived protected from the outside and the children went to specific exclusive schools. Snowman was then called Jimmy and he lived a life of privilege, playing video games, smoking weed, investigating pornography and violence from the safety of his and his best friend's home. Jimmy's best friend Glenn, nicknamed Crake, became a renowned geneticist evolving into a demented scientific genius. The world fell apart. A plague (planned) was unleashed and began to kill off all the humans of which only a select few had the antidote. Jimmy and Glenn both loved the same strange genetically altered female, Oryx which lead to murder/suicide with Jimmy/Snowman being the lone survivor. To the Crakers Snowman paints Oryx and Crake as loving saviors and caretakers but to the reader he shows their warped roles in bringing the world to its sad end.

Dark stuff, no? Yes, but if you are a lover of the post-apocalyptic genre this trilogy is a great one. I have met some who thought it too weird, dirty, or nasty. But those of us who love it, will read it again willingly. I have already read the next two books and must blog about them, so this review cannot take too long! Go for it and if you are buying your own copy try to find one with the superb artwork of Hieronymous Bosch's “The Garden of Earthly Delights” or Cranach the Elder's “The Fall” for you will want to keep it and you will want the beauty.


THE STORYTELLER – JODI PICOULT

Oh my, I haven't read a Picoult book for a while! I had forgotten how she can twist a plot and turn a phrase to simply make your hair stand on end and take your breath away. Once I cracked this one open I did not want to put it down and when made to, I couldn't wait to pick it up again. In a way this book reminded me of Yan Martel's Beatrice and Virgil (a highly recommended book) which is also a story cloaked within another story with shades of WW II Holocaust thrown in designed to make the reader be horrified and mesmerized at the same time.

Sage Singer has followed a family tradition of being an excellent baker. At only 25, she lives fairly reclusive following an accident that disfigured her face and killed her mother. Her weekly visits to her grief support group help and it is there she befriends an older gentleman who also frequents the bakery where she works. Josef Weber always orders the same thing which he shares with his beloved dachshund and when he and Sage begin to converse she learns of his feelings of loss since the death of his wife. He has lived in their town for over 50 years, is a beloved retired high school teacher and a much-respected neighborhood volunteer. Sage enjoys Josef's company and his stories until the day he asks her to help him die.

Sage makes it clear that she will not ever participate in any such thing, pointing out moral and legal issues. She tries to distance herself from him. Not one to give up, Josef persists. He continues seeking her out and talking to her, and then he indicates that when she knows who he really is she will desire to help him. Most readers who have retained any history will know where he is trying to go with his stories. As his stories progress the darkness builds, the fear permeates every new chapter, and Sage's heart begins to ache not just for herself anymore.


Throw into this scenario the fact that Sage has a close relationship with her grandmother, Minka who is a Holocaust survivor and a great storyteller (who may or may not have known Josef), her boss is a former hippie-type nun, and her lover is a married funeral director! Enter the ever useful Department of Justice NAZI-hunter agent for a love interest and what else could a reader want I ask you? 

The stories are all so intricately woven, creating a beautiful webbed network for the reader to unwind. Questions arise as one reads this book, some of which may have no true answers. What is real evil? What is it that creates an evil person? What would one do to protect family? What entails forgiveness? Who can or should be forgiven? Who has the right to forgive, and who does not? Are there truly totally evil people? Can evil people be redeemed?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

THE BLUE BOTTE CLUB – PENELOPE J. STOKES

I read madly to finish my book club book for Monday because I have another one due next Tuesday and I need more time. Yikes! How do I let that happen? 

My friends know I have always had difficulty with fiction books specifically written for “inspiration” and this was of that genre so you can guess my reluctance. My reasons for staying shy of the genre are the usual, contrived plot, controlled vocabulary, too predictable etc. That is not to say I never recommend them or say they are bad, just not my cup-of-tea.

That being said, this was better than most of the genre that I have tasted. On Christmas Eve in 1929 four young girls place written dreams and plans for their future into a blue bottle. They make a pact to forever be best friends and place the bottle on a rafter in the attic of one of their homes. Sixty five years later that bottle is found upon the demolition of that house. Brendan Delaney, a local newscaster, takes the bottle on a quest to find the four girls, now octogenarians, to see if their lives turned out as they wished and hoped. The plot was very intricate and sometimes I got lost thinking about how Brendan got places so fast and easily? She had to go from one side of the country to the complete opposite, then north, and home again in a matter of days!

Of course, none of the girls got exactly what they wanted, and all of them had to live through many tribulations. They became adults during the Great Depression and during a time when women did not do the things these girls wanted to do such as go off to be a social worker, move to NYC to become an artist, take off for Hollywood and become an actor. Only one wanted to stay home, marry her school sweet-heart, and have a lot of babies, which she didn't get to do.

Truthfully, I much enjoyed each of the women's stories. It is my opinion however, that the best story is that of Adora Archer, the preacher's daughter who ran away to Hollywood. She ended up trying to climb the acting ladder too quickly by getting involved with a director, ending up pregnant, homeless, and jobless. When she turned to her family for forgiveness they proclaimed her dead and had a funeral. That is the only part of her story that didn't feel true to me. The author did spend a lot of time showing the reader the hypocrisy of the Archer's church as one pandering to the wealthy and turning away the needy, but turning away your own daughter, to me felt off. 

My second favorite was the girl who fled to the nunnery to escape her burgeoning family who ends up staying. She actually is the closest one to meet her dreams as she does become an artist and famous, just not via the avenue she sought.

Even though I liked all of the four life-stories, I did feel like the second half of the book got too preachy. Inside my head I felt like, “OK, I get it already!” But I also think people who love Christian fiction expect that and may look forward to it in their stories.

Sometimes I did the silent eye-roll when things got tied up too neatly, but I loved the four lives being so different and the convolution of each girl's path. I got the warm fuzzy “good-people-doing-good-because-of-their-religion” feeling via twisted life tales years ago when reading Billie Letts' books such as The Honk and Holler Opening Soon and Where the Heart Is, which I prefer – if that makes any sense to you, but if you are a female CF reader I would not pass this one by. It is not a guy book at all though and Letts' books can be enjoyed by all.

Monday, September 29, 2014

LIFE AFTER LIFE – KATE ATKINSON

Oops, didn't get my book finished for book club! Well dang it, when a month has 5 Mondays it's hard to keep appointments straight! Never-the-less I did finally get it finished, then it took me a few days to decide if I liked it. It wasn't one of the best I have read, but it was interesting. At some place in the middle it got put aside for a day or two so I could ponder.

When I tell friends I just read a “born again” novel their eyebrows raise because they all know that being a hard-core mainstream protestant I don't go in for any of that charismatic fallderoll. (I don't mind those who do, to each his own, and every person needs to find his or her own path.) But, this isn't that kind of “born again.” Ursula, the protagonist is literally reborn many times, thence living many parts of her life over.

The first chapter is but a page and a half. Ursula is 30 (in 1930) and assassinates Hitler only to be instantly killed herself. The next chapter is her stillbirth during a snowstorm in 1910 taking less than a page and a half. Next chapter – birth again, but this time the doctor arrives in time to resuscitate her. The chapters then begin to get longer and the method of death comes later, and often quite shockingly. It was necessary to put a sticky note on the contents page so in order to go back and check each time a new chapter started to get my bearings. I have never done that before! Markers on footnote pages and on map pages yes, but never on the contents page. Many chapters/lives take place leading up to and during World War Two. Even though every time she starts a segment of her life over she doesn't remember the other life, each reliving leaves some residual impressions and dark fears. She even tells a psychotherapist that she feels that her life seems like a palimpsest which it actually is!

Some of my friends who read it didn't like the jumping from time periods and the lost feeling of not knowing where you were each new chapter. That was disconcerting at times, but I liked it constructed that way. If you want to read this book and don't like that style I guess you could read all the chapters by date, as I have heard some have done with Frazier's book Cold Mountain. Probably the author wants us to feel as disjointed as Ursula does sometimes. The characterization is really good, her family is quirky, but also full of poignant and often sad people. My only big beef is that in several re-livings there is a murderer of young girls. Sometimes the murders are evaded and sometimes don't. He is seen by the reader but never unmasked in the book, and he appears to never see justice. I hate it when that happens, even though I know in real life many, if not most, murders go unsolved.


Since this review ended sooner than I thought please allow me to digress about my discount used book from abebooks.com. I read most of my books from the library, but if it is for a reading group I often like to buy old and used copies so I can write in the margins or pass them along to friends and family. Now, I love abebooks.com but once in a while the description does not accurately describe my purchase as it did not this time. A few times I have complained to them but I gave that up as too much of a nuisance. I wanted a beautiful hard copy to put in my personal library, but the one I received is a discarded copy from a library which apparently does not use bookends. (Some of you will know what I mean.) My copy has lain too long at an angle on the shelf, the spine is broken in three places, and the beautiful decorative front end page has been torn out. I truly hate it when the sales description says, “good” when the piece is actually simply “acceptable.” One for my garage sale next summer. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

LIMBO

Limbo is a funny word. When I was a child in Van Wert, Ohio some of my elementary friends talked about a thing called "limbo" and they meant a place an unrepentant or unbaptized person went upon death which was not Hell but not Heaven. Sometimes I could give them money to put in a little can for their church and they would pray these people out of limbo, or so they said, if I am remembering it correctly. It was always a little scary to me and I never really bought it, so as the word "limbo" evolved over the decades to be used as in Webter's online third and fourth definition (an intermediate or transitional place or state; a state of uncertainty) I am now more comfortable using it. Well, that is where I have felt I have been since April 22, 2014 when my mother passed away. I never ever, even when we were told in October that she would never get better, imagined my life without my mother. She was an only child, I was her only daughter, I had only sons and only grandsons. It was just she and I for so many years and for the last six she lived with me. Limbo for me has followed. Isn't it a strange coincidence my first blog is about a girl in limbo?

RIP Marjorie Ellen Griesinger Chapman 1926-2014



IF I STAY – Gayle Forman

I work part-time in a public library in a very small town and last week a young girl came in to sign up for a library card. All went well until she was asked if she was looking for anything in particular. “Yes, If I Stay,” she said. “So sorry was the reply, we don't have that one,” and we knew because that was not the first inquiry and since the movie is newly in the cinema it is in demand. I hate hate hate it when that happens, I feel we should be able to get books fast and as soon as there is any indication it will be in demand. But such is not the case in small towns in Indiana with tiny budgets. Nevertheless, I then rushed out to buy it, read it, and donate it to the library so I don't have to witness any other eager teen's dismay.

If there is anyone who hasn't contemplated the state of “limbo” (that transitional state of not being in one place and yet not fully in the other) I have never met them. As a matter of fact that seemed to be a frequent topic among my school friends when I was about 11 or 12. No one seems to know if there really is such a state or what it would feel like to be thus. If I Stay is a tale of a girl not only in limbo following a car accident, but realizing she is to make the decision to pass on into death where all of her immediate family have gone, or to stay on the earth and live on which means bearing unquestionable grief, pain, and uncertainty.

Sounds like a painful read doesn't it? But it isn't! It is most certainly a teen book but as an adult I fully enjoyed it. It is fascinating to follow Mia from the scene of the accident to the hospital waiting room where she watches her extended family grapple with their own grief, worry, and acceptance. She must weigh the consequences of either of her choices as they do also. Some beg her to stay, but some give her permission to go if she wants to, and both of those feel like gifts to her and measures of lovingly granting her freedom.

I liked the structure of the book with alternate chapters being in the present then in the past. Characterizations were deftly written making the reader feel vested in many characters. Mia's parents are not portrayed as perfect and certainly not as traditional, which is refreshing. Friends, like Henry, and Kim have problems and foibles of their own that they are working through.


The love story between Mia and Adam is also non-traditional but feels real. This small book is an afternoon read and I am pretty sure should be a satisfying little movie. In the end of my copy there is a section of book club discussion questions, but better than that a little bit about where Mia is four years later. It will make you want to pick up the sequel.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET – Jamie Ford

What his son, Marty, never fully understood was that deep down there was an Ethel-shaped hole in Henry's life, and without her, all he felt was the draft of loneliness, cold and sharp, the years slipping away like blood from a wound that never heals.” (sigh) That quotation on page four portended a book to feed my soul. It is about his son not understanding how Henry feels at the loss of his much beloved wife, Ethel.

Occasionally such a book finds its way into your life. One with sentence structure and characterization to take your breath away. This is one for me. After reading it for the second time, it still holds that same “food for my heart and soul” as it did at our first encounter.

I also get to give away 20 brand new copies of this title on April 23, 2014 as a "giver" for World Book Night and my prayer is that those copies will find souls to nourish as it did mine. The book binding is artistically satisfying. A mix of butterscotch, vanilla, and green colors combined with a depiction of children by the sea in the mist (Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe) are enough to elicit feelings of anticipation for a great read.

Hotel is so well written as to make the reader actually feel what it must have been like to witness the nightmare of the rounding up for internment of Japanese-Americans during WW II. Families were torn apart, losing all their belongings, their homes, jobs, being persecuted by their own country that they were loyal to and mostly in which they were born. The people watching the nightmare transpire were equally emotional, some feeling confusion, helplessness, and broken-heartedness, but others with glee, hatred, and feelings of superiority.

But this book is not really about the internment. It is a multiple love story and one of finding oneself after major life altering events. In Seattle, Washington second generation Chinese-American Henry Lee lives in Chinatown while his best friend Keiko lives in Japantown. The Chinese and Japanese of Seattle are at odds already because back in China a war still rages between the countries, animosity seeping into the American subcultures. WW II is raging and public sentiment toward people of Japanese origin is quickly getting bitter and violent. Henry and Keiko both have earned scholarships to go to a white school where they work together in the cafeteria. She is a third generation American-Japanese girl. Her grandfather immigrated long ago and both her parents and Keiko were born in Washington and speak no Japanese. Henry and Keiko become best friends, spending many hours and days together haunting Jazz clubs listening outside to the music, spending time with Henry's jazz-playing friend, Sheldon, and haunting record stores looking for a rare record.

When the US military trucks show up with weapon-bearing soldiers to round up all the Japanese-Americans and herd them onto trains a chilling scene follows as Henry tries frantically to find his friend, and to understand why this is happening. Of course looters take over the Japanese neighborhoods immediately and it all happens so fast. It made me feel physically sick reading about it. We can only hope that we will not soon be repeating that in America, but today I see much of the same resentments being openly shown to our Muslim-Americans and it seems eerily similar.

After 40+ years pass The Panama Hotel is sold to a young woman who plans to restore it to its full prewar glory. In the basement she finds a cache of stored mementos and valuables belonging to the families that were sent away in 1942. Those families had thought they would be returning soon, which they never did. Henry recognizes Keiko's parasol.

On page 7 - “The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.” Thus Henry, with the help of his son and his dying best friend, embarks on a mission.

I hope I didn't make this book sound maudlin. It isn't at all, and I learned so much about the times in places like Seattle where large numbers of Japanese and Chinese descendants lived together yet very much apart. There is a whole sub-story about Henry trying to find his place as an American while dealing with the old traditions and prejudices of his father, and much irony in history that we can only see in retrospect, such as Mr. Okabe, an American born lawyer, being first persecuted, interned, then sent with the Japanese division of the Army to Europe to fight the Germans. Another favorite line of mine is on page 265 when Henry's father dies and he realizes he has too many obligations and therefore cannot wait for Keiko, his love, to return. He will help his mother in his father's place, go to China to finish his education, marry a nice “Chinese” girl, cover up his sadness and, “...do what he always did, find the sweet among the bitter.”

I'm sure your public library had this book for you to read and if it doesn't ask them to buy it. I will be read and I am glad to have read it twice!


** Footnote: my mother passed away a few days after I finished this entry and I did not get to hand out my free copies. However, my two friends Beth and Wendy did it for me. They passed out 20 copies of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in Dunkirk Indiana and I pray at least some of those books brightened some lives as it did mine.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

THE WEIRD SISTERS – Eleanor Brown

Weird. Can that be a sentence on its own? Well the book is weird, the characters are weird, and the title reference to Macbeth is weird because it lead me to think the sisters were going to be witches! They were not witches, they were just “weird.” It is a beauty though, nice iridescent white cover with beautiful and delicate green vines meandering over the cover and through the title. There is also a quotation on the front saying, “See, we love each other. We just don't happen to like each other very much,” which is apropos considering as the reader I didn't particularly like any of them either. The first person plural narrative also gave me pause. At first I kept thinking there must be a fourth person watching the other three referring to “we” all the time, but then there was only the three, therefore a collective first person. Recently I have come across some other contemporary writers using that voice such as Buddha in the Attic by Otsuka but it isn't my favorite.

My friend Wendy says I am weird because since high school, I have loved Shakespeare. I tell her good teachers made it real to me and taught me to appreciate Shakespearean references in contemporary media whether it is in literature, television, or simply in everyday references. This book is full of such references and quotations as well although to ad nauseam sometimes. Three eccentric adult sisters return home with the idea of ministering to their mother who is suffering from breast cancer. Each is really escaping from her failures and fears and is shocked to find her siblings also home. They find themselves revisiting their relationships with each other, dealing with their emotionally distant, renowned Shakespeare scholar/college professor father who insists on answering questions with rhymes, couplets, and quotations from plays, and figure out where they want to go with their futures. All that while dealing with a seriously ill mother and the eccentricities of their small college town in rural Ohio.

The sisters names are all from Shakespeare too and I am sure the author chose them to compliment each personality. The oldest is Rosalind named from “As You Like It” and is so controlling she cannot let the others make decisions but also cannot move on with her fiance to craft a new life on her own. Bianca from “The Taming of the Shrew” is bossy, bitchy, over-sexed, deep in debt, and at a loss for how to start over. Cordelia from “King Lear” has returned home after years of drifting as a drugged hippie, pregnant, and facing 30 with no skills or education.

The plots fit together nicely actually. As the family progresses down the path of surgery, chemotherapy, and rehab with the mother, the women also grow, change, evolve, and move on. For me it was fun to fit in the idea of a whole family who has lived for many decades with no TV, with a penchant for books, and a love of a centuries-dead writer as their compass. I liked it, but what I didn't like was the one plot line of spinster-librarian bowing out and prodding the library board to hire a non-librarian (Bianca) to fill her shoes, indicating that being a librarian isn't rocket-science. What! Librarianship isn't hard, you don't need a degree? Librarians beware when reading this book. But “All's Well that Ends Well” (wink wink).


Monday, March 10, 2014

ALONG THE WAY: THE JOURNEY OF A FATHER AND SON – Martin Sheen & Emelio Estevez with Hope Edelman

I do hate it when I write a review and forget to post it! This one is from August 2013 who knows why it slipped past my attention. Oh well... My church study group decided we wanted to watch the movie The Way with Martin Sheen and Emelio Estevez and also to read their book. We rented the DVD from the library, purchased our books, and met at a group members house this time instead of church. We made popcorn and cookies and had quite a nice party of it. After the movie we discussed both it and the book Along the Way. Great idea. I would recommend both to any discussion group.

The Way is a full length movie. A pilgrim story in which a busy professional father, Tom, must go to Europe to claim the remains and possessions of his son Daniel. Daniel died tragically while hiking the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), a centuries-old pilgrimage over Spanish mountain country to the Cathedral de Santiago. After getting to Spain and collecting his son's things and his ashes Tom decides to make his own pilgrimage and scatter the ashes along the way that Daniel planned to hike. He even uses Daniel's backpack and hiking gear. On his trek Tom rethinks his relationship with his son and also even though he wants to be alone and to be left alone he ends up traveling with three other pilgrims. While hiking together they each work through some serious issues. It may sound dull but it is a really good story and the characters are unique and worth getting to know.

The book Along the Way is a memoir examining the relationship of this father and son. It is a delightful read, is not a “tell-all” of family skeletons, and most definitely not where you would go to get the dirt on Charlie Sheen's recent meltdowns. In dual first person voice Martin and Emelio have written alternating chapters which fit together quite nicely in this respectful book of a mature father and adult son reflecting on their relationship. The construction of the book is a back and forth type of dialog between the chapters. I understand that Hope Edelman conducted interviews with the two, constructed the manuscript, then submitted it to them for review and editing. The tone is respectful even when the chapters contain scenes of family trials, episodes of Martin's drunkenness, and Emilio's misbehavior.

Along the Way begins with Ramon Estevez (Martin's given name) childhood being raised in Dayton, Ohio one of ten children of immigrants. His mother was Irish and his father Spanish. He was raised with lots of love but little support for his desire to be an actor. He was young, just 21, when he married and started his own family. Times were very hard for an aspiring actor with so many responsibilities. With candor, telling stories that had to be painful, Sheen makes it clear how he struggled with being a father, husband, actor and alcoholic. Raised Catholic he also talks often of faith.

While not as philosophical as Sheen, Estevez also reveals his own foibles, struggles, and vices during his journey from “Brat Pack” actor, too young father, and budding screen writer to mature father, son, and responsible adult. The love of family, respect for each other, and dedication to becoming the best persons they can be is elucidated in this lovely book. The vehicle that makes the chapters flow into each other is the backstory of their working together on their move The Way, and their trek to the homeland to meet the relatives in Spain where Sheen's father had been raised. The same area in Spain is where Estevez has chosen to settle and have a vineyard. I would read this book again and I would watch the film again. They make me think and they make me feel hopeful. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

THE NAZI OFFICER'S WIFE – Edith Hahn Beer


Sometimes one needs to read a book that hurts. It helps you to remember to be vigilant so you can be a voice of protest in the present when you witness prejudice, meanness, and injustice. This is such a book. This autobiography by Edith Hahn Beer is very good even if it does make your hair stand on end and your heart ache.

What makes this Holocaust survivor book different is that this educated and outspoken Viennese Jewish woman was forced to hide from Nazi attention, becoming what is referred to as a “U-boat” or a person hiding in plain sight. After being forced into a ghetto and then to a work camp she returned to Vienna to find her family and friends deported or in concentration camps. At first she went underground but finding it too hard to survive she was able to use forged papers from a friend to start a new life in Munich. She married a Nazi Party member, Werner Vetter, held down a job, and bore a child but lived every day with the paralyzing fear of being found out. Edith lost herself during that time. Werner married a complete person that in reality didn't even exist. It came as no surprise that after the war he was not happy with the real person, lawyer, judge who was no longer home cooking and cleaning and being the hausfrau he wanted.

Hahn Beer began her story in the midst of the war, at her job for the Red Cross in a hospital for foreign war criminals where she witnessed a nurse smuggling food to patients and homeless Jews. This is to set the reader up for understanding that there were acts by ordinary citizens trying to deliver mercy during merciless times. She had assumed an alias, was pretending to be an uneducated farm girl and 21 when she was in actuality 29 and highly educated. The next chapter takes the reader back to her happy adolescence and progresses through to when the Nazis have taken over her world and she is denied the opportunity to take her last final to complete her law degree, through her years as a “U-boat” and finally to the present. The construction of the book works well to tell her story. Hahn Beer is never over sentimental, not exceedingly graphic, nor maudlin but her story is clear and heartbreaking. She makes it quite plain that the reader should face facts, the German people did know what was going on, the Christian church did nothing to help and indeed sanctioned the movement, and yet there were and are good people who did and will always step up.

Thank goodness Edith's long time friend and lover Pepi preserved their correspondence and her identity papers enabling her to reclaim her personage after the war and also helping her to reconstruct her experiences decades later. Unfortunately post war Austria under the Soviet occupation was not good. After her marriage to Vetter fell apart Hahn Beer fled to Britain and later to Israel. She died in 2009.


This book is a gem. It is the only one I have read about “U-boat” people. Once I picked it up I couldn't put it down. Knowing it was true at times nearly made my heart stop. In the thirties when Edith and her friends were in college their perspective of Hilter and his ilk were that he/they were idiots and ranters, not real thinkers, and not to be taken seriously soon to be gone. One friend commented that, “There might be a time when people would no longer know the difference.” That conversation brought goosebumps to my arms. Not only for them because that is what happened, but for us as I am afraid that those times may have come today to America. There seem today to be many idiots ranting on the TV and on the radio who are not “wise thinkers” at all, and many today don't seem to know the difference - indeed.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

THE CASUAL VACANCY – J. K. Rowling

Irony – got up in the night with a migraine. Battled it with pain meds and ice packs for several hours until finally it subsided enough to enable reading a book. The Casual Vacancy on the shelf caught my eye so off I went to snuggle up with my cat and a blanket thinking about Rowling's first adult book. I had no idea a main character drops dead in the first chapter of a brain aneurism! At 3 in the morning with a pounding head let me tell you that seemed creepy and perhaps a little omen-ish. But I finished the book and am well so... false alarm.

In the small English town of Pagford there is much unrest. Many prominent people have serious personal issues and some are not who they pretend to be. We, as the reader get to see them in all their dented and tarnished glory. Written in third person with many characters to keep track of, there is no one to clearly identify with. No character is all good or all bad, nor are any without serious flaws. This book is mostly character study interjected with social issues magnified by anger, prejudice, and angst. It definitely has an edge. No pretty idyllic English quaintness at all. But I was hooked on the first page. The writing is wonderful and I loved the way Rowling slowly waltzes the reader into a man's life showing us his lovely wife and family, lets us see his angst at disappointing them and then BAM, the “casual vacancy” occurs. A casual vacancy occurs when a council member cannot finish his term because of resignation or death.

When a pillar of the small community, Berry Fairbrother, drops dead he leaves a beautiful young family, civic projects unfinished, and an open seat on the town council. Multiple battles and social skirmishes ensue. The rich snobs of the community seek an opportunity to rid themselves of the poor neighborhood which includes a methadone center by having it annexed to the nearby larger community. The local physician, a Muslim, battles prejudice in the community but also in herself with her inability to accept her imperfect child. A public school teacher battles his mental illness. A nurse tries to protect her children from her abusive husband. A councilman struggles to get his son elected in Fairbrother's place. A young girl desperately tries to save her brother from her prostitute-drug-addicted mother. A man battles his obesity and his obsession with young women. And that is only a sampling of the conflicts. No easy fixes or satisfying closure to be found in this book either but you will be intrigued and you will be forced to witness different vantage points of several social issues. I like that in a book and I did like this book. However, there were things I did not like and some very much. There was too much, and I would say, overdone teen sex, drugs, and alcohol. I am not averse to reading those things when they further the plot and seem to ring true but here it seemed like Rowling might be trying to make a point that she can write about current issues with grit and reality, but it didn't feel so to me, it felt unnecessary and contrived.

The characters are well written, the multiple plots intertwine well, and the writing style is much to my liking. I look forward to reading more of Rowling's adult lit if she polishes her work a bit. Possibly she should use a better editor? Could it be when an author is so popular less attention is given to making a work more readable? Not sure, but I am seeing more and more work recently which I and others feel are good but should have been better. All that being said I am still recommending this book to some friends. The cover art of my edition is very pleasing, looking a bit retro in black and yellow. The fancy font introducing each of the seven sections is a nice touch and the sections each emphasizing a basic plot meshing together is fun. A good work I say.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

ONE THOUSAND WHITE WOMEN: THE JOURNALS OF MAY DODD – Jim Fergus

One of my book groups was scheduled to read this so I scrounged used book stores until I found a copy, a bit battered but in one piece. Truthfully I prefer hard copies but then I feel a burning desire to keep it, so I try to decide if a book is truly “shelfworthy.” If a book is worthy of keeping in my small house then I will go for the hard. Sure that this would be one to pass along I opted soft. I enjoyed it, it isn't a “classic” or of great quality, some of it seems a bit cliché, and perhaps the portrayal of the Cheyenne isn't very accurate. That being said I still liked it.

If the notes are to be believed the premise of the book is based on a real event. Apparently in 1854 at a national peace conference a noted Indian chief requested 1000 white women be sent West as brides in exchange for horses. The reasoning was that procreating with white women would be the impetus for assimilating the Indian nation into the white man's society. Of course this did not go well and indeed the women were never sent. Enter Jim Fergus to write a “what if” story of just such an endeavor. It is moved forward in time about twenty years and written in the form of a journal of one such woman sent to be a “savage bride.”

As you can imagine it was quite difficult to find 1000 willing women to go, so the prisons and insane asylums were culled for volunteers. Forty women are assembled. May Dodd had been put in an insane asylum by her wealthy family for having a “perverse personality” disorder. Which means she has been living with a man to whom she is not married and had children out of wedlock. The ability to leave the asylum, she thinks, may be her ticket to a new life and a future opportunity to perhaps be able to find her children. While on the way West May has a short but torrid affair with John Bourke, an army captain. He tries to get May to scrap her plans but he also cannot marry her because he is already betrothed, and besides she is not an acceptable bride for an officer.

As the traveling and the journalling progresses the reader gets to know the core group of women quite well and a motley crew they are. Among them are a gay environmentalist, a black Amazon ex-slave, an evangelical Bible-thumper, a terrified mute, feisty Irish twins, a Swedish farm girl, and a racist Southern belle. May steps up as a pillar of strength, an understanding influence, and a wise leader among the women. When she becomes the wife of an important chief she adapts to native life and helps her fellow wives assimilate into the tribe. Of course knowing any history of the time and place the reader knows things cannot end well. There are problems of course with communication and the clash not only of cultures but of strong personalities. The Natives are at war with invading white people but also with each other. There is brutality and hardship as well as love and dawning understanding between unlike minds. When the powers that be in Washington decide to take over the very land where the tribes of the women have been located, the army, including Bourke shows up. Heartbreak.


The segue to the present in my opinion works well and closes the story nicely. Whether or not the description of Cheyenne life is accurate, I enjoyed the adventure, the strange characters, and even the love stories. If you can't appreciate history re-imagined it isn't for you, but if you like the fantastic “what ifs” of a good tale told then you may want to try this one. Overall our book group liked it and we had a good discussion. I have already passed it along to a good friend. Hope she likes it.

AVIATOR'S WIFE – Melanie Benjamin

First of all I want to complain about the cover of the edition I had. It is always aggravating when a publisher doesn't take pains to make sure the cover art rings true. The woman on the cover seems not in the least bit to portray Anne Morrow Lindbergh. While being essentially about Anne we do look at Charles Lindbergh and from reading about Benjamin's research and other articles about him I am suspecting that this is a pretty accurate look at this American icon and his family. He does not come across as very likeable. Of course this is historic fiction so possible he wasn't as manipulative as it seemed here.

Anne Morrow was a smart, motivated, kind, and trusting woman. She was the product of a wealthy family having all the perks of good education, prestige, and opportunity. However, she was very much a product of her time (1920s America) and as did most young society girls she seemed to drift along into what was expected for young girls. She allowed herself to be “chosen” to be a wife by an American hero. Little thought was given to love or whether or not they would be good companions or even had anything in common. Charles was looking for a partner of good breeding and social standing, and one for whom he could rely on for intelligence and a sense of adventure.
It is easy to like Anne in this book and to at some level to admire her stamina, her willingness to support her spouse, and her quest for excitement. But sometimes her need to please and her desire to never disappoint grated on my nerves. Anne allowed Charles to be a bully and a tyrant in the home for which she could never seem to feel good about nor to stand up against. She always wanted to be stronger and a better mother but always capitulated to Charles wishes. It wasn't that he had no feelings, but his childhood had been so dysfunctional that I believe his perspective on good parenting was very warped. The kidnapping and murder of their first child was very hard to read about and very hard not to not hate Charles with his insistence on stoicism and keeping the grief at bay.

In either high school or college after reading about Lindbergh's heroics, it was at some point mentioned that he had been a Nazi sympathizer. Reading about how that transpired in this book made more sense to me. I was glad to discover Anne's inner strength when she came into her own through her writing. Now I want to scour this house to find my old copy of A Gift from the Sea (which I know is here somewhere) so I can read it again since I know a bit more about the author. 
It is sometimes hard for a person of the 21st century to understand the hows and whys of lives lived in a time and culture which we don't understand and so I like it when things evolve in a book in a way to make me feel and think as the main protagonist.

I was as shocked as she was to find out his darkest secrets and to be amazed at how he could publicly be so judgmental towards other men and people who he considered to have loose morals then..... well, we don't want to spoil the ending now do we?


Anne Morrow Lindbergh does not come across as good or bad, as a saint or a terrible sinner, just as an interesting person, a product of her times, but a human of basically good character with flaws. Overall a great beach read or for a rainy afternoon and it doesn't take long to read.

GOING POSTAL – Terry Pratchett

Moist Van Lipwig, what a name and indeed what a book! I do enjoy the Pratchett Discworld books. Many a library and indeed many a reader insist on numbering the series in sequence as they were written, however, you honestly don't need to read them in such a way. Pick any one that suits your fancy and you will be delighted. All of the Discworld books, this one being the 29th, take place in an alternate world that is flat. There are some similarities to our world like cities, armies, ships, animals, greed, piracy, war, and pestilence. But, the technologies are different, and the culture, while similar, seems to be stuck in a past time of horse-drawn conveyances and superstition. This world also has any number of mythological creatures living and interacting with humans. There are werewolves, golems, banshees, vampires... you name it.

The supreme ruler of Discworld, Lord Vetinari rescues Moist Van Lipwig, a notorious con-man and criminal from execution. He then gives him a choice of death or being the new postmaster of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office. Moist knows nothing of mail service but he does know how to manipulate people and get things done. He also cannot escape his bodyguard golem who is made of clay, never eats or sleeps, and is always at his side, so he has no choice but to try to make his new job work. The post office went into decline decades before because of corruption, mismanagement, and a series of unsolved deaths of the previous postmasters. The invention of a series of towers that carry messages across the country, called “The Grand Trunk” also has contributed to the PO decline. The people of Ankh-Morpork are obsessed with sending messages using the clacks towers and no longer want to wait for mail delivery. Moist inherits two employees, an old man who never bathes covering himself in homeopathic salves and poultices, and an unstable young man obsessed with collecting pins. The building which once was a shining beacon of information transference is in decrepitude. The mail has piled up everywhere, the chandeliers have been taken, the place is a mess. The mail sorter has broken down after having gone amok creating a warp in time and space making mail that hadn't actually been written yet. The wizards of the land cannot fix it.

Reacher Gilt, a millionaire has taken over The Grand Trunk lines downsizing the operations and overworking the staff until the operation is in jeopardy. He is obsessed with keeping his investors happy by raking in profits but doesn't care about tower maintenance or the welfare of the craftsman who work the towers. Moist sees an opportunity to redeem the post office. He hires old postmen, a series of delivery coaches, and finds one Adora Belle Dearheart to supply him with golems to do labor and protect the mail carriers. Mail begins to be delivered, some 50-year-old mail makes a splash in the newspapers, and Moist invents stamps. Things begin to happen. Death, fire, espionage, heroics, love, this book has it all and you will laugh and be in a hurry to get to the next page. The characters are so well written as to be clearly visible in the mind. Who could not like characters like Miss Dearheart a gothic and cynical chain smoker, Iodine Maccalariat the iron fisted, double hairbunned office manager, Mr. Tiddles the cat, Tolliver Groat who is offended in the hospital when nurses give him a trouserectomy, to bathe him and who just might have been “Oggling my trumpet-and-skittles,” werewolf Captain Ironfounderson of the police, or Oscar the vampire?


I loved all of it even the dust jacket which looked like a postage stamp, down to the color put on in hashmarks like when you look up close to a stamp or a dollar bill. Pratchett is a genius. If you would like a fantastic story of a lying schemer realizing the satisfaction of being of service to others, learning to feel remorse, and leaving egocentricity behind, pick up Going Postal. The beginning of each chapter has illustrations too, how fun!