Monday, February 12, 2018

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

This is Hannah Coulter’s story, an ordinary woman who loves, loses, loves again, and loses again, gathering moments and memories along the way. Now in her seventies, she sifts through her life, taking out scenes and examining them, caressing them, sometimes finding joy and sometimes sadness, and then piecing them together.

Wendell Berry understands connection—the connection people have with each other and with the land. He understands the yearnings of the soul; the tender, quiet, beautify, ordinarily moments; the depth of love and feeling. Hannah is connected to a place—to the village of Port William, Kentucky—and to her farm there. (This is one of several novels that take place in Port William.) And she’s connected to people, both living and dead.

Berry's simple, poetic prose brought me to streaming-down-my-face tears—and that rarely happens to me while reading. Or at all, really. I was actually sobbing at the simple beauty of his words and the depth of his understanding. I felt mournful and yet optimistic, and incredibly grateful.

Absolutely one of my favorite books ever for its sheer loveliness and poignancy. I feel better for having read it, more cognizant of the small beauties of an ordinary life.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Book Review: The Sleepwalker

The Sleepwalker (Sleepwalker, #1)The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story: Beautiful Annalee Ahlberg is missing and presumed dead. She has a history of serious sleepwalking—sleepwalking during which she does bizarre and disturbing things of which she is unaware the next day. Her family assumes that she has walked off the bridge into the river while sleepwalking. Lianna stays home from college to care for her younger sister and their father. They are all lost, waiting for a body to turn up, waiting to find out what has really happened to Annalee. During the investigation, Lianna falls in love with the detective, and we begin to wonder if Gavin, who also suffers from sleepwalking, might know more about Annalee than he should.

Me: Chris Bohjalian is a masterful storyteller. There is absolutely no question, NONE, that he writes exquisitely. He is a wordsmith of the highest caliber. In fact, as I write this, I have to change my 3-star rating to a 4-star rating simply because Bohjalian deserves a minimum of 4 stars no matter what he writes. But the story itself is still just a 3-star for me. I liked the characters in this novel: the motherless sisters, the despondent widower, and the detective, Gavin. I was interested in learning the science behind sleepwalking. But, frankly, I just couldn't embrace the whole sleepwalking plot, which plays into the ending of the novel is a surprising way—and one that didn't feel satisfying to me. I love Bohjalian's writing, but I much prefer The Buffalo Soldier, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Double Bind. He's simply brilliant!

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

2017: The Year in Books

I set a goal of reading 50 books in 2017—and squeaked by at the end with exactly 50. I was terrible about doing book reviews this year, but I have been more active on Goodreads and have been publishing quick reviews there and linking them to my blog.

The Best
Here are my favorites of the year (not including rereads):
  1. 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff)
  2. Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)
  3. Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  4. My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
  5. One-in-a-Million Boy (Monica Wood)
  6. Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin)
  7. Winter Sea (Susanna Kearsley)
  8. Women of the Castle (Jessica Shattuck)

 Out of those, I would probably choose One-in-a-Million Boy as my absolute favorite—but these were all truly fabulous.

Book Club
Our book club choices this year were:
Where the Heart Is (Billie Letts
Shakespeare's Landlord (Charlaine Harris)
Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall)
My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)
Mink River (Brian Doyle)
War That Saved My Life (Kimberly Bradley) (I read this one last year and loved it)

My favorites out of this list were My Family and Other Animals and the Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper; however, at least a few book club members put down My Family after only a couple of chapters. I think the best discussion came from The War That Saved My Life. Everyone loved that one!

Here is the whole list. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--absolutely must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Book Review: An American Plague

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Newbery Honor Book)An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As the subtitle indicates, this is, indeed the story of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 (and subsequent years) in Philadelphia. The author draws on primary sources (letters, diaries, newspaper articles) to create an overall horrifying picture of how yellow fever ravaged this then largest city in America. I was especially intrigued by how the medical community reacted to the fever—the various "cures" doctors tried—as well as by the heroics of ordinary citizens as they cared for the sick.

This is a children's book (5th grade and up), and I have to say my own kids would probably have been disappointed at the promise of a "terrifying" story. It was gruesome in parts (all that black bile—ew) but perhaps not "terrifying." Nonetheless, it is a quick and easy read, and, honestly, I didn't know much about this particular yellow fever outbreak and how it affected our newly formed country. It wasn't a riveting read, but I'm glad to have spent the afternoon delving into this bit of history.

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Book Review: Lilac Girls

Lilac GirlsLilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story: This Holocaust novel is told from three perspectives: Kasia, a Polish prisoner at Ravensbrück; Caroline Ferriday, a former actress who works at the French embassy; and Herta Oberheuser, a doctor at Ravensbrück who proudly performs experiments on the prisoners. The story itself is a true one. Oberheuser was convicted of Nazi war crimes, and Ferriday was an incredible social activist. The character of Kasia is based on a group of Polish women prisoners nicknamed "The Rabbits," on whom Oberheuser performed horrible experiments.

My reaction: The real story itself is amazing. I would love to read more about Caroline Ferriday and these incredible women known as The Rabbits after reading this novel. It's a story that needs to be told and keep being told so that it never happens again. But… honestly, the whole novel was choppy and disconnected. I should have cried as I read this novel; instead, I felt as emotionally detached and perplexed at the flatness of these characters that yearned to be richly developed. Caroline was the most developed character, yet the bulk of her chapters had to do with a romance that seemed extraneous to the actual story. Oberheuser was utterly flat. And Kasia—ah, what a missed character opportunity. I suspect there was more to the novel originally—more scenes that would further character development—and the author was advised to shorten it.

I admire the research that Kelly put into the novel. According to her afterword, she spent years studying the letters of Ferriday and documents pertaining to the atrocities at Ravensbrück. She traveled to the town in Poland where many of these women came from, retraced their train ride to the camp, investigated the camp itself.

In spite of my overall feeling of disconnect, I would recommend the novel because the story itself is one that should be told and remembered, hopefully encouraging us to use our outrage to help others in whatever way we can.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Book Review: The Couple Next Door

The Couple Next DoorThe Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Honestly, this is one of those guilty pleasure books. It's full of plot twists, plastic characters, and things that would never happen in real life, but lately my brain seems to crave absolute, unequivocally dramatic fiction. There's a kidnapped baby, a mom with postpartum depression, multimillionaire grandparents, and a husband from the other side of the tracks. Also: a neighbor named Cynthia, sharp knives, and hidden cell phones.

I gave it 4 stars because it was exactly the book I needed at the moment, not because it's a work of literary genius. This is what I think of as an "in-between" book—a cushion between more thought-provoking books. Fun, fast, and somehow quite satisfying.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Books Read in May and June


Firefly Lane by Kristen Hannah.
The story: Kate and Tully are best friends, growing up together on Firefly Lane. Kate is average but has a fabulous family; Tully is gorgeous but has no family. Kate wants an ordinary life; Tully wants fame and fortune. They novel spans their relationship from early teens through their 40s or 50s: through first loves, college, career, lost loves, parenting, etc.
Me: Meh. I couldn't get attached to either of the main characters or even to any of the characters. There was too much backstory left untold to make some of the more potentially interesting plot lines substantive. It was predictable and embarrassingly silly at times. It's hard for me to wrap my brain around the fact that Kristen Hannah wrote The Nightingale, which was phenomenal, and also wrote this.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline.
The story: Kline imagines the story of Anna Christina Olson, subject of the iconic painting "Christina’s World" by the  Andrew Wyeth. Olson and her brother are living by themselves in the old family farmhouse without water or electricity when Wyeth stumbles upon them and sets up his summer studio in their home. Christina's life has been a series of disappointments, from contracting a crippling disease as a little girl to losing her only love. Wyeth brings beauty and grace to Christina's world and allows her to see herself through different eyes. Wyeth's painting turns the once invisible Christina into a lasting treasure.
Me: It was hard to get into at first but I began really enjoying it about midway through. I didn’t know what was wrong with Olson— neither did she— and would have understood more had there been more detailed description as her disease began. Kline is a wonderful storyteller, and eventually I became completely immersed in Christina's world. Her own personal landscape was gray and tired, but Wyeth saw something completely different. I love that someone so ordinary could become a muse to someone so extraordinary, and thus become extraordinary herself. Highly recommended.

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott.
I had the pleasure of hearing Anne Lamott speak recently. She was partly reading from Hallalujah Anyway and mostly just talking. She was truly wonderful. What an absolute privilege that evening was! Anyway, this memoir of sorts is Lamott's exploration of the concepts of grace and mercy. It's just a lovely book full of thought-provoking, comforting musings.
• “The hard silence between frustrated people always feels cluttered. But holy silence is spacious and inviting. You can drink it down. We offer it to ourselves when we work, rest, meditate, bike, read. When we hike by ourselves, we hear a silence still pristine with crunching leaves and birdsong. Silence can be a system of peace, which is mercy, easily offered to a friend needing quiet, harder when the person is one's own annoying self.”
• “My parents, teachers, and the culture I grew up in showed me a drawer in which to stuff my merciful nature, because mercy made me look vulnerable and foolish, and it made me less productive.”
• "Forgiveness and mercy mean that, bit by bit, you begin to outshine the resentment. You open the drawer that was shut and you take out hte precious treasures that you hid there so long ago, and with them, the person who marvels at tadpoles, who pulls for people to come clean and then have a second chance…"
It sounds trite, I know, but Lamott truly challenges me to be a better person: more compassionate, more forgiving, and more merciful.


My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
The Story: When Gerald Durrell was 10 years old, his family (his three older siblings, all in their late teens or early 20s, and his widowed mother) left dreary England for the sunny island of Corfu. Gerry is left essentially on his own at first: free to wander the island, make friends with the locals, and explore the incredible plant and animal life. Every now and then, his family would suddenly remember Gerry and decide he needed formal education, so a occasional tutors were hired—and they learned as much from Gerry as he did from them. Durrell remembers his island days with beautiful writing, hilarious stories, and incredible detail.
Me: I loved this book. It was our June book club pick and a particular favorite of our book club member's 18-year-old son. And I can completely see why: as I was reading this book, I saw Sam, her son, on every page. Durrell was bursting with curiosity as a young boy. He simply observed the world around him, soaked in every detail, befriended everyone, watched every animal-- insects, birds, reptiles-- adopted all kinds of pets, and wreaked havoc on his more "mature" siblings. He was simply delightful, as was this memoir. I laughed a lot and really wanted to re-do by kids' childhood by living off the grid. Lovely book.

Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas
The story: Firoozeh Dumas came to America from Iran as a young girl, and she recounts the hilarious and poignant story of her family's experiences in America in her memoir Funny in Farsi. Laughing Without an Accent continues with more vignettes of her Iranian family and their cultural conundrums, the often confusing intersection between American and Iranian customs, and her own place as a citizen of the world at large.
 Me: I've been meaning to read this book for years, so I was excited when a former student loaned it to me. Whenever I teach World Literature, I begin with Funny in Farsi. My students almost always love this memoir-- and always ask me if I've read Laughing Without an Accent. I'm glad I can finally say I have! This collection of stories is nearly as wonderful. Dumas is a humorist but she has these moments of truth that just hit hard. At the core of her memoirs is the intense love of family but also the theme of "why can't we all just get along?" Highly recommended.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott.
The Story: The Knox family has only one focus: getting Devon, their teenage daughter, to the Olympics. She's an incredible gymnast and perfect child, and everyone in the community is rooting for her. Well, rooting for her while seething with jealousy. And then the assistant coach's boyfriend dies in a violent accident, and everyone is a suspect. Secrets start piling up and relationships crumble, but the Knox family is determined that nothing will get in the way of Devon's success.
Me: Oh, this was good! It was all very riveting and suspenseful, with plenty of twists and turns and secrets revealed slowly. It was a quick, creepy read.

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell.
The story:  The Bird family used to be the perfect family. Lorelei was a creative, free-spirited mom to Meg, Beth, and twins Rory and Rhys. But then something happens to the Bird family. (The tragedy is revealed about midway through.) Once carefree and joyful, the tragedy leads to the demise of the family. They drift apart and then become disdainful of one other. Once best friends, even Meg and Beth refuse to speak to one another, and Lorelei dies alone, a hoarder in their once lovely home. The book shifts between the present, when the children are middle-aged, and the past, as we find out what actually happened-- and why.
Me: I liked most of the book, although a lot went on. Like, really a lot. Probably too much-- it became tangled a bit too much. But somehow it was all quite interesting, and I did get wrapped up in the characters. My biggest complaint is that the mystery finally revealed at the end of the novel was odd and didn't really fit with the rest of the novel. It was just plain weird. So... good, but not great.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick.
The story: Arthur Pepper has been a widower for one long and painful year. He goes through his days with precise and painstaking routine.  On the one year anniversary of her death, he decides he really must go through her belongings, and while sorting through her clothes, he discovers a charm bracelet that he's never seen before. He's puzzled but intrigued. Where did the bracelet come from, and why was she hiding it from him? The first charm leads him on a journey to uncover a life he never knew about—her life before she met Arthur and settled down. While he discovers who Miriam once was, he also discovers who he really is—and that there is a lot more life to live.
Me: I loved this book! It was our July book club read, and everyone agreed that it was wonderful. It's reminiscent of both A Man Called Ove and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry—two of my favorite reads last year. Like Ove and Harold, Arthur is a lost, grumpy old man who discovers incredible joy—and the incredible writing in all of these novels just makes it all incredibly delicious. Highly recommended!