Sunday, November 24, 2013

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

In rural Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow, a discontented wife and mother, climbs a hill, to keep a rendezvous with a young telephone line repairman. Although she’s only twenty-eight, she feels like she’s given up on all her dreams. At seventeen she planned to go to college but got pregnant and married instead. Now she’s the mother of two children and living on a failing sheep farm.

As she climbs higher up the mountain she beholds an incredible sight, like a wall of shimmering orange flame without heat or smoke, a forest fire that doesn't burn. She takes it as a sign from God and turns back. But whether it’s a God-sent miracle or not, it is a unique natural phenomena that will soon attract the attention of the entire world. Without her glasses on, Dellarobia didn't realize that what she was looking at was masses of monarch butterflies clinging to the trees. They usually go to Mexico, but due to a devastating mud slide and climate changes they have come to Tennessee instead.

As scientists and sightseers gather, Dellarobia begins working part-time in a temporary lab studying the butterflies, and realizes that maybe it’s not too late and the life she once longed for is not beyond her. But it will mean change and sacrifice if she is prepared to make it.

This was an interesting book, both as an unhappily married woman’s personal dilemma and the plight of the Monarch butterflies. At times it seemed a little slow-paced and long to me, but overall it was an enjoyable read.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Stones From The River by Ursula Hegi

At last, I finally get to revisit this old favorite. I've been wanting to reread it for years, but the “To Read” stacks just keep growing, and overflowing.

Spanning the years 1915 to 1952, this novel tells the story of Trudi Montag, a Zwerg (dwarf) woman, and collector of secrets, in the little German town of Burgdorf, who, with her father, runs the library, and hides Jews in the cellar during World War II.

Not only is this book a heart wrenching portrait of what it is like to be different, to be disdained and discounted because of one’s physical appearance, to want love but always be denied it, it also has a cast of the most vivid, memorable characters. There’s Trudi’s friend, Georg, whose mother will never forgive him for not being born a girl, and the mysterious Unknown Benefactor who leaves gifts for the townspeople, Frau Simon, the red-haired milliner who will never sell anyone a hat unless it looks good on them, and Frau Doktor Rosen, a female doctor whose husband, no one can ever decide, is either too lazy or sick to work, and her daughter, Eva, who is Trudi’s friend, but only in secret, and Emil Hesping, the manager of the gymnast club who has the wonderful gift of being able to make anyone smile, laugh, and feel better. Tragic, beautiful Ingrid. And many more. They’re wonderful, unique and special characters, it’s a treat to learn about and get to know.

When she is thirteen, Trudi goes to the circus and meets Pia, a dwarf woman like herself, but a beautiful, stylish one. She teaches Trudi not to feel so alone, and to embrace being special. It’s a life changing encounter. Trudi begins making changes, first with her clothes, she stops wearing the children’s clothes her father buys off the rack of local stores for her and instead learns to sew, making dresses that show her off to best advantage, she chops off her blonde braids, and affects a stylish bob, and begins to wear chic hats and high heels.  She begins to exude a new confidence. And we see her first disillusioning brush with love and feel every bit of her pain at knowing she will never be a wife and mother, or belong to someone, like most women. Her loneliness touched me so deeply that many times I cried, both for her, and for myself, because I know what that’s like.

As Hitler becomes increasingly dominant, more and more the people seek solace in the library, finding comfort in books about handsome doctors and pretty nurses, cowboys and Indians, stories where love conquers all and good always triumphs over evil. It’s a terrifying time of suspicion, paranoia, book burning, Nazi youth groups, anti-Semitism, and Nazi propaganda. People Trudi has known all her life begin to disappear because they disagreed or dared to criticize the new regime.

As a person who knows what it is like to be different, Trudi understands better than most the plight of the Jews and helps those she can.

After the war, when so many people she knows, or knew, have been lost or changed, all anyone wants to do is go on, forget, and rebuild. But amidst the hope, as life goes on, there fresh tragedies, some of which will break your heart if, like me, you've come to care about these characters.

I love this book so much. It’s one of those stories where, reading it, I wanted with all my heart for it to have a happy ending, for everything to turn out all right, even though I knew it probably wouldn't ring true, life just isn't like that. I've read a lot of books over the years, some I’ve forgotten, some I've remembered, but this is one that has always stayed with me. I recommend it to everyone who loves historical fiction or any kind of novel with characters so real they reach right off the page and touch your heart.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is one of my favorite books, which inspired one of my favorite movies, and I was delighted to finally have the chance to read it again. It’s a wonderful coming of age story spanning the years 1912 to 1918 in the life of Francie Nolan, a girl of the Brooklyn tenements who loves to read and dreams of being a writer when she grows up.

When the story begins in the summer of 1912, Francie is ten years old and her brother Neely is nine. Their mother, Katie Nolan, is a pretty, practical, hard as nails woman of twenty-nine, who works as a scrubwoman to support her family, while her lovable husband, Johnny, a drunkard and pipe dreamer whose dreams never come true, can’t hold down a regular job, and takes work as a singing waiter whenever he can get it, using his tips to buy his liquor. Life has eroded any natural tendency to tenderness Katie ever had, and hardened her heart like the soda in the water she uses to scrub the floors has hardened her hands and left them raw and cracked, she has to make hard and often unpopular decisions while everybody loves and likes Johnny. Then there is her sister, Aunt Sissy (wonderfully portrayed by Joan Blondell in the movie) a big-hearted woman with a lackadaisical approach to marriage, divorce, and birth control, who can’t give birth to a living child.

This book paints a vivid picture of this family and what their life was like, and how a poor and lonely child with a love of books struggles to fit in and to hold on to her dreams, like school, which Francie loves, but almost loses after her father dies.

For those familiar with the movie, it follows the book very closely, only offering a broader scope, like introducing a few characters not featured in the movie and taking a look back at the happy days when Katie and Johnny first fell in love and married. But the movie stops with Francie at fifteen, the book goes further.

After Johnny’s death, of alcoholism and pneumonia, the reader gets to witness Francie’s grief, the birth of her baby sister, named Annie Laurie after a song Johnny used to sing, we get to watch her grow up, become a young woman, going to work in an artificial flower factory at fourteen, then at newspaper clipping service, enduring the first painful pangs of love, being hurt by a man’s lies, and preparing to go to college in 1918 after her mother has married Officer McShane who can make life easier for them all.

It’s a moving, sentimental and nostalgic “Sidewalks of New York” style book filled with characters who stick in your mind you can actually feel something for, whether good or bad or somewhere in between. But it’s not all sugar and spice nostalgia, it doesn't shrink from the ugliness and cruelty of life, it has it all in just the right measure and I think that’s one of the reasons people still love this book. Life is not a fairy tale and this story doesn't try to pretend it is, it doesn't promise a happily ever after, and when you reach the last page you’re left wondering what the rest of their lives were like. Sometimes I wish Betty Smith had written a sequel, even though part of me is glad she didn't since I always seem to regret reading sequels yet always feel compelled to if I liked the original book. Through the author’s words, we feel and see it all, the people and their problems, the dirt, poverty, hope and despair, we feel the hard knocks of life they experience, and it’s sweet, simple pleasures like penny candy and library books, candy canes and tangerines at Christmas, and fourth of July fireworks, Thanksgiving dinner with homemade noodles and pot roast, and Halloween hijinxs. We experience Francie’s first taste of pumpkin pie and the pretty china doll with golden curls and a fancy dress she won at charity Christmas party by telling what turned to be a white lie and her guilt over it. And the gentle encouragement of a teacher that changed her life when she told Francie to write down the lies instead of telling them, that way they become a story, “tell the truth and write the story.” Great advice and a great book that inspired a great movie, I urge everyone to try one or the other or, even better, both.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

There Was An Old Woman by Hallie Ephron

“Don’t let him in until I’m gone,” elderly recluse Sandra Ferrante whispers to a neighbor as the paramedics load her into an ambulance in the aftermath of a drunken fall.

When her estranged daughter, Evie, arrives she is shocked to discover that her mother’s house is at risk of being condemned by the health department. It’s a real mess to put it mildly. Filth, squalor, rot, decay, garbage, and vermin galore. Oddly, right in the center of it all is a brand new flat screen tv her mother’s scant social security income could never afford, the liquor bottles are of an expensive brand of vodka instead of the usual cheap stuff, and, when she examines the financial records, she discovers her mother has paid off her thousands of dollars of credit card debt without any money going in or out of her bank account. The mail is also full of mysterious envelopes containing stacks of $100 bills. Who are they from? What are they for?

Mom’s condition has deteriorated, so she’s not able to enlighten Evie, and her nearest neighbor, Mrs. Yetner has problems of her own. She’s becoming increasingly forgetful and accident prone. She’s worried she’s developing dementia like her late sister. Her nephew Brian is inclined to agree and is very eager to get her into a nursing home. And what about those papers he wants her to sign?

Is something sinister going on in the neighborhood? Or is it just a case of old age and the inevitable decline? Sorry, no spoilers today.

This was an interesting novel that kept me up and turning pages until the very end, but not quite what I was expecting. When it was suggested to me it was being presented more as a horror novel, or a thriller, that first tantalizing line “Don’t let him in until I’m gone,” had me very curious. But there’s nothing supernatural stalking through these pages, what mysteries and evil deeds there are in this novel are entirely human.

The Missionary Position Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens

At only 98 pages, this little book reads more like a research paper than a book, but it will make you think and after reading it you may never see the saintly Mother Teresa in the same light again. At first glance, it seems a trifle mean spirited, like a schoolyard bully picking on the saintly, wizened nun who devoted her life to the poor, but Mr. Hitchens makes some interesting and disturbing observations.

Where did all the money go? It was collected to help the poor, yet supposedly sat unused in bank accounts; one account alone supposedly had a balance of $50 million, because the nuns had taken a vow of poverty. It doesn’t make much sense to me; the money was donated to help the poor and suffering, not the nuns themselves, so why could the nuns not spend it for the purpose it was intended, the purpose for which they collected it? What was the point of collecting it at all if it was just going to sit there in the bank? For decades Mother Teresa was given millions of dollars in charitable donations, and cash prizes that accompanied the many humanitarian awards she was given, enough to outfit several first class clinics, yet she chose to maintain bare bones establishments where the sick and dying were crowded into dormitories lying on stretcher type cots, denied proper medical care, expert diagnosis that might have actually saved some of their lives, and adequate pain medication, such as the morphine that is common in hospice care for those in the final agonizing stages of terminal cancer.  If they were lucky, the dying were given an occasional aspirin. Hypodermic needles were also reused, the nuns of her Missionaries of Charity order just rinsed them under a coldwater tap, they didn’t even bother to boil the water first in order to sterilize them. And in the morgue a “cheerful” sign hung, announcing “I am going to Heaven today.” Mother Teresa herself was known to tell the dying, “You are suffering like Christ on the cross, so Jesus must be kissing you.” She thought “it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being very much helped by the suffering of poor people.” Though, curiously, when the so-called “Saint of Calcutta” was ailing, with heart problems are other age related infirmities, she always had topnotch treatment at the world’s finest hospitals.

If the allegations in this book are true, I find it very sad. I’m just a reader who casually picked up this book, I’m not religious, and I don’t know much about the late Mother Teresa or her mission, so I can’t say whether this book is just another attempt to pull one of the world’s idols off their pedestal or if it is an honest and accurate expose, all I can say is what I’ve already said, that it’s sad and thought provoking.