Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I have had Life After Life by Kate Atkinson on my shelf for ages and I was finally able to find the time to read it. It follows the life, or lives, rather, of Ursula Todd. She is born on a snowy night in 1910 and due to complications of her birth, she dies almost immediately due to the umbilical cord being tied around her neck. Then it is that same snowy night in 1910 and she is born again, but the doctor is able to remove the cord from her neck and she lives. We watch as Ursula lives many different lives where each ending takes her back to the beginning. Ursula is plagued by overwhelming moments of deja vu and flashes of foreboding throughout her life that the reader knows are moments when she has previously died. Each time she learns a little more, gets a little further along.

This book is fascinating to read, if a bit complex. The storylines are intricately woven through time. This is certainly not something you can read with half your attention and I wouldn't recommend taking long breaks between sessions because you may forget where, and when, you are. For me, this book was very difficult to put down. Though it felt a little slow at the start, once I got going and understood the storyline, I was ravenous with reading it. How would Ursula avoid each death in the following life? Or would she?

This book asks the question:

What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally did get it right?

What if we did?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

When We Meet Again by Kristin Harmel

In Kristin Harmel's When We Meet Again, Emily is a thirty-six-year-old freelance journalist living alone in Orlando, Florida. Having lost her mother when she was a teenager, she spent the remainder of her childhood and early adulthood with her grandmother Margaret. When Margaret dies, Emily writes an article about her grandmother's life and the love she lost when she was very young. Emily is then shocked when a beautiful painting of her grandmother arrives at her front door with the message that "he never stopped loving her." This mysterious note leads Emily to embark on a journey to discover the identity of the love of her grandmother's life and to understand what could possibly have separated them.

Alternating between the present and the late-1940s and early-1950s, When We Meet Again brings the reader to a time when German prisoners of war were put to work in labor camps. Margaret meets a man she will love her whole life while he is toiling away the days in one such camp in the sugar cane fields of Florida. I wasn't even aware such camps existed, but it turns out there were 700 such camps that imprisoned 425,000 Germans in 46 different states. Overseen by the Geneva Convention, the United States was required to provide living conditions comparable to those provided to US military personnel as well as sufficient food and comparable pay for labor rendered.
I found this element of the story fascinating.

Mostly a quick read that dances lightly on the border of historical fiction and chick-lit, this book was sweet, soft and engaging. It wasn't too long before I had worked out the twists in the story, but they were fun to read, nonetheless. If you need something light, but still with a bit of depth, I would recommend you read When We Meet Again by Kristin Harmel.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

What I've Heard- As You Wish

Today I finished listening to such a fun book- As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. I love The Princess Bride. Like many of you, I'm sure, I can quote nearly the entire film and for me the jokes never lose their charm. I borrowed the print version of this book from the library just to take a gander at behind-the-scenes photos, but then I checked out and listened to the audio version. Typically, I only listen to books I've read in case I miss an important plot point, but I thought this book would be better as an audio version. With it being read by Wesley himself and with the voices of several other actors, I was totally right. This audio book was fantastic.

Cary Elwes is darling and so full of kindness and love for everyone with whom he worked on the film. The way that he talks about his experience filming this much-loved production of a much-loved novel makes me love the movie even more, if that's possible. He makes it sound as if making this movie was a dream come true, not only for himself, but for everyone involved with the production. And when he talks about his sadness at finishing filming and leaving the wonderful friends he had made, I cried, too. Sure, I'm a sap, but he made the production sound so wonderful that I didn't want to see it end, either.

If you love The Princess Bride like I do, you will loved this peek into how such a wonderful film was made and you'll learn so much about the actors and producers involved. And listen to the audio version. It couldn't be more wonderful.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

One of the things I really like about being in a book club is the opportunity to be introduced to new books that I might not have ever read otherwise. Of course, with that comes the risk that I will read books I don't like. While I normally would not continue a book I wasn't enjoying, with book club selections, I feel obligated to finish so that I will be able to contribute to the discussion. Today, I finished a book I would not have chosen and would not have finished if it weren't for book club.

The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen is about a little boy who has lived his whole life in a basement, along with his mother, father, older sister and brother, and his grandmother. Born in the basement, he has never seen outside. Everyone else in the family has severe burns from a fire before his birth. His sister even wears a mask to conceal her disfigurement. Told in sections, we first join the story when the boy is nearly five-years-old, we then jump ahead six years and eventually we are able to flashback to before the family entered the basement. This is the boy's story, whose name we never learn, so details are sketchy and his narration slightly unreliable.

I did not like this book. Just reading the description, it sounds dark and unhappy and I just don't generally go for books like that, but I'm a good sport and a devoted book club member, so I read. Even books we don't like can lead to interesting discussions. I look forward to hearing what everyone else thought. I can't recommend this book, but if you read it and want to talk about it, I'm here.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

What I've Heard- The Book of Life

I have just finished my most recent listen to The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness and I just never get tired of these books. The characters are wonderful, the writing is inventive, and the narration is outstanding. If you haven't read these books yet, please move them to the top of your TBR list. You won't be sorry.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is a collection of feminist essays, the first being the title essay. It all begins with the story of Ms. Solnit attending a fancy party in Aspen where the host asks her what she does for a living. When she begins to talk about her writing and the topic of her most recent book, the host interrupts her and goes on at length about another, much more important book that was recently published on the same subject. No matter how much she tried to interrupt, no matter that her friend said three different times, "That's her book", he continued to hold forth "with that smug look I know so well in a man".

That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless- for a moment, before he began holding forth again.

She does make it clear that both women and men pretend to know more about things than they really do:

...but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men.

She is quick to clarify that she knows plenty of men who do not do this. Her writing isn't about All Men, but about behaviors that are predominantly displayed by men. In a postscript, she clarifies:

If it is not clear enough in the piece, I love it when people explain things to me they know and I'm interested in but don't yet know; it's when they explain things to me I know and they don't that the conversation goes wrong.

As an example, she mentions the Republican Representative from Missouri Todd Akin and his explanation for why abortion isn't necessary, even in cases of rape because "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down." 

The next essay, titled The Longest War, focuses on violence and the common factor in most violent crime- gender. 

So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year. Of sixty-two mass shootings (as of the date of this essay, 2013) in the United States in three decades, only one was by a woman, because when you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men.

The term rape culture is discussed in several of her essays and what that means for the way women approach the world differently than men. Every woman has been given the "self-defense" recommendations to avoid being raped (don't go out alone, carry your keys in your hand, don't wear certain types of clothing, etc.). Solnit discusses how this limits women. And why is it that women have to be taught how not to get raped, rather than the men being taught not to rape? She mentions these tips that were circulating the internet at the time:

The number of violent crimes committed by men are much higher than those committed by women.

Young female athletes, unlike the male football players in Stubenville, aren't likely to urinate on unconscious boys, let alone violate them and boast about it in YouTube videos and Twitter feeds. There's just no maternal equivalent to the 11 percent of rapes that are by fathers or stepfathers. No major female pop star has blown the head off a young man she took home with her, as did Phil Spector.  No female action-movie star has been charged with domestic violence, because Angelina Jolie just isn't doing what Mel Gibson and Steve McQueen did, and there aren't any celebrated female movie directors who gave a thirteen-year-old drugs before sexually assaulting that child, while she kept saying "no," as did Roman Polanski.

Solnit credits a Twitter user named Jenny Chiu who posted "Sure #NotAllMen are misogynists and rapist. That's not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen live in fear of the ones that are."
This book was a quick, thought-provoking read. If feminism is a topic in which you're interested (and I certainly hope you are) I think you will find Ms. Solnit has much to add to the conversation.

"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people" --Marie Sheer

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

Just the sweet cover of Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv makes me want to read it. Once I got started, I didn't want to stop. In this book Arthur is an octogenarian grieving the loss of his beloved wife, whom he refers to as Nola Corrine, the Beauty Queen. Each day, he takes the bus to the cemetery to have lunch with her. He talks to her headstone, telling her all about his days and the weather. He misses her so much and just wants to feel like she can still hear him. One day, he notices a teenage girl sitting under a tree in within the cemetery walls. Then he notices that she comes back day after day, too. Wondering what she could be doing out of school and never seeming to visit any grave in particular, he waves to her, then introduces himself. Soon a friendship between Arthur and the girl, Maddy, develops and it is utterly sweet. Maddy has her own troubles, and a nose ring that Arthur can't understand, but she is able to talk to him in a way she can't talk to anyone else. Also chief among the cast of characters is Lucille, Arthur's long-time next door neighbor. Bossy and nosey, she nevertheless becomes an important part of his life.

This book is darling. I really loved the characters and Arthur's sweet, sage advice is as good for eighteen-year-old lost girls as it is for eighty-year-old wandering spinsters. When Arthur visits the cemetery each day, he pauses at other random graves, reads the headstones and then "gets" things about those buried there. He knows (or imagines he knows) things like how they met their spouses, their favorite flowers, the things they liked to eat. He even "gets" a story about one man's red robe, a Christmas gift that caught on fire after bumping a candle the first time he tried it on. These little stories are sprinkled throughout the book and add so much texture and love and it then occurs to the reader that we are "getting" Arthur's whole story, or at least more than the snippet we get of the others. Quick! Someone hug me!

One bit that really spoke to me is when Lucille feels she is old and useless, that she has nothing left to do in this world. 

"It's so embarrassing to be useless."
Arthur refuses to believe anyone is useless.
"Did you ever hear anyone say they wanted to be a writer? ... Everybody wants to be a writer...but what we need are readers. Right? Where would writers be without readers. Who are they going to write for? And actors, what are they without an audience? Actors, painters, dancers, comedians, even just ordinary people doing ordinary things, what are they without an audience of some sort?
See, that's what I do. I'm the audience. I am the witness. I am the great appreciator."

I think it can be tempting in this world to think that if we aren't the writers or the actors or the painters that we have no value, but I kind of like the idea of being the great appreciator.

There are so many good lines in this book.

"Are you hungry?'' Lucille asks. Her favorite thing is asking that and having you say yes.

"Sometimes I wonder what the world would sound like if everybody stopped complaining. It sure would be a quiet place."

And my favorite:

Love is never foolish. Or unnecessary.

I may not be an octogenarian, but one small part in this book made me feel a bit old. It happens when Maddy talks about owning her mother's Tori Amos CD collection. She talks about it like I might have thought about my parents' Eagles albums. I suppose the passing of time sneaks up on all of us.
Can I get another hug?

This book is wonderful and sweet and lovely. I really enjoyed reading it and I hope you will, too.
Hugs for everyone!