Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hiding Secrets of the Heart

Title: Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret
Author: Steve Luxenberg
Date: 2010
Pages: 432
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 978-1401310196

Family secrets have a way of surfacing, whether the secret keeper wishes it or not. For Steve Luxenberg, finding out that his ailing mother was not an only child began a quest to find out who the unmentioned Annie really was in life, and why her presence was hidden from family history by his mother, Beth. This true story follows Luxenberg's quest to uncover the secrets of Annie after the death of his mother. In the process, Luxenberg becomes the keeper of other family secrets and uncovering unexplored family tensions and stories.

As with many quests, Luxenberg's journey happens in bursts of activity with long months of inactivity. Researching the life history of someone unmentioned and deliberately hidden requires perseverance and patience, which is portrayed in detail throughout the book. However, when Luxenberg finally pieces together the story, he (and the reader) is still unclear who Annie really was and what Beth's motivation was to deny her existence.

Beth, born Bertha, was born into a work-class family in New York. Her sister, Annie, was born a few years later with an unformed foot and cognitive delays. When caring for Annie became nearly impossible, she was sent to a mental asylum in her teenage years in the 1940s. She spent her entire life in various facilities, at first being visited by her mother and aunt. However, Beth reinvented herself and her family story to deny the existence of Annie in order to present a marriageable facade. The only contact that Beth had with Annie was to bury her middle-aged sister in the 1970s. With only one slip to a hospital psychiatrist, Beth took her secret to the grave.

While investigating this family secret, Luxenburg interviews extended family members and people from Beth's old neighborhood. Each person provides a small snippets of the secret – some knowing nothing about Annie, and others sharing images and impressions of the family. However, Anna Oliwek, a Holocaust survivor and cousin to the family, had direct experience with Annie and Beth's inability to except her blight, which caused a family rifted that lasted until Beth's death. While interviewing Anna, Luxenberg learns Anna's secrets and how she survived Hilter's onslaught.

At the beginning of the book, all the plot points are revealed. Beth dies, Annie is a secret, and Luxenberg investigates. But, his journey leads through a century of major social and political change and an evolving understand of mental illness. Although he never finds a picture of Annie, nor does he get a real sense of who she was, Luxenburg's family provides a gravestone for Annie's final resting place, where in death she will not be unnamed.  It was a book that I regretted putting down and couldn't wait to get back to at the end of the day.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I still find each day too short for ... all the books I want to read

Title:Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
Author: Matthew Goodman
Pages: 480
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-0345527264

When I was in elementary school, I read a biography of Nellie Bly. It was one of those short, simplistic children's biographies from the school library. If I remember right, I filled out a book report form which looked like a train car that snaked around the classroom with the slogan, “Reading Keeps You on Track” or something similar. I was in a phase where I read a lot of biographies of women who struggled against gender discrimination of their times – Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, and Susan B. Anthony. When it can time to make some decisions in my life, I returned to these heroes and role models to guide me. That's the power of good biographies.

Ken Eikenberry wrote a piece entitled “5 Reasons to Read More Biographies”. He believes that biographies allow you to:
  1. stand on the shoulders of giants
  2. remind you that history repeats itself
  3. promote self discovery
  4. see the world in new ways
  5. have mentors at a distance
I think Eikenberry is correct.  Reading biographies can show a lot more than just the person's life.  When really engaged with the story, biographies make me think deeper about history, how people respond and react to their situations, and makes me think about how I might react.  It is well known that many of our presidents and CEOs have been readers of biographies.

As I read Eighty Days, I not only learned more about Nellie Bly and was introduced to Elizabth Bisland, but I was also struck by the enormity of the things I did not know and the ability of time to bury sensational stories. It made me wonder how much of what I find in current events to be unforgettable will actually even be remembered in 10, 20 or 100 years. But, let me go back to the beginning.

Eighty Days alternates between telling the story of Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) and Elizabeth Bisland. Nellie was from a working class background who gained a following as a reported at the Pittsburgh Dispatch and later the New York World. Her early stories focused on the plight of poor and working women and was best known for her insider expose on a poorly run mental hospital. At one point, Nellie tried to convince her editor that she should try to beat Jules Verne's fictional trip around the world in eighty days. Being young and a woman, the editor initially denied her request, but a year later, he sent her off. Being practical, Nellie traveled with one major outfit and a small carry bag, to hasten her ability to change modes of transportation. In her travels, she was able to meet Jules Verne and finished the trip in just over seventy-two days. Throughout her journey, she reported back to the paper, and became a major celebrity wherever she visited.

Not to be outdone, The New York newspaper Cosmopolitan sent its own reporter around the world in the opposite direction. Elizabeth Bisland had a background very different from Nellie's. She was born and raised in the south – well-read and even conducted salons in New York that attracted up and coming writers and artists. She was refined and said to be beautiful and captivating. When the Cosmopolitan heard about Bly's trip, they gave Elizabeth two days to be ready. Unfortunately, her journey in the opposite direct brought her into some very difficult weather, and she arrived in New York days after Nellie Bly.

It was well into the journey that Bly learned she had a rival. What both women didn't realize was the sensationalism of their travels back home. Newspapers across the country reported (quite often falsely) tales of their trip. A contest was conducted with a prediction of when Bly would arrive in New York. Board games were created. Nellie Bly's image was used in multiple advertisements. These were the conversations of the proverbial watercooler.

This was the first realization I had. If the author is correct, and I have no doubt he is, for almost three
months, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were on the lips and minds of most people across the country – like the Kardashians in all the tabloids and magazines today. Yet, within a year, both women struggled to continue their work as reporters and Nellie Bly couldn't make it as a lecturer on the circuit. Although many people today might recognize the name Nellie Bly, few would recall Elizabeth Bisland. Even with the biographies I read as a child, I was not introduced to this rival of Bly. This was one of those books that literally many my mind shift – it had to re-construct what I thought I knew.

Which led me to the next epiphany – there is a whole lot in the world that I don't know! As John Burroughs said, “I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Feed your soul, through life's banalities

Title: Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen
Author: Julie Powell
Pages: 320
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316109697

A few years ago, my husband and I watched the Nora Ephron movie Julie/Julia, mostly because I liked Amy Adams from Enchanted. However, I was hooked on learning more about Julia Child's life, as I found Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci's interpretation of Julia and Paul Child's marriage fascinating. I picked up Julia Child's memior My Life in France and really enjoyed hearing, in her own voice, about Julia's experience living and learning cooking in France. However, when I looked at reviews of Julie Powell's book Julie and Julia, the reviews were uneven and many complained about the whiny and profane manner of Powell's writing. When I happened to stumble on the audio version, that was even read by Powell, I figured I would give it a chance.

For me, the main theme was Powell's desire to make a mark on the world or at least find meaning in her own life. That does seem to parallel Julia Child's experiences in France. Other than her husband Paul, Julia Child had not found her passion or niche in life until she began taking cooking classes in France. Julie Powell, an unfulfilled actress and daytime secretary, was looking for the same thing. Her vow to cook all 524 recipes in Child's first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking while blogging about it, gave Powell a sense of purpose and eventually, accomplishment. Her blog gathered a loyal following and toward the end of the year project, Powell was featured on talk shows and in print, which eventually led to a book deal. Drawing on her blog, but re-interpreting the year, Powell recounts the struggle to find obscure ingredients, master time-consuming cooking techniques, and the multiple melt downs as she contemplates hitting age 30 without anything to show for it.

I think what drew a lot of readers to the book was this sense that we all want to make our mark on the world. Each individual life can seem petty, like the scene in Joe Verses the Volcano when all the
workers file into the gray office building to do their lowly jobs in gray, windowless rooms. I think we all strive to stand out, be meaningful or at least recognized by more than our small circle of family and friends. There is debate about if Powell started the blog as a “stunt” for publicity, but even if she did, the dedication to learning antiquated French cooking techniques and religiously blogging about it was more than a passing publicity stunt. As for Julia Child, maybe she didn't intentionally set out to shake up the cooking world, but when opportunities for more books and TV deals came up, she took them and became known around the world. I found it greatly ironic that Julia Child may have thought Julie Powell was “not a serious cook” and a bit irreverent, when what I've read about Julia Child indicated she was called the same thing when she began cooking on TV. A few years ago, Gourmet magazine made a list of 50 Woman Game-Changers in food – Julia was number 1, Julie was number 50, but she made the list.

In the end, the book is about finding the things that feed your soul, when life's banalities seem to loom large.  And for feeding their souls, French food, for both Julia and Julie, was the answer.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The state of wonder through the heart of darkness

Title: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Pages: 353
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-204980-3

Although not explicit, State of Wonder embodies the three different definitions of wonder, according to
        1. to think or speculate curiously be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel
        3. to doubt

The Vogel company has an uncommunicative, isolationist scientist in the Amazon region of Brazil that is researching a miracle fertility drug that could extend pregnancy beyond middle age. However, the CEO, Mr. Fox, can't get a progress report from Dr. Swenson and when Anders Eckman is sent to get one, he supposedly dies in the jungle. Marina Singh, a former student of Dr. Swenson, is sent next to attempt to find the research station and extract some reports on the research.

This book is her journey, comparable to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, into the darkness of not only the jungles of Brazil, but the darkness of medical ethics and exploitation of research subjects. During this journey, Marina is troubled by her own background - an Indian father who mostly abandoned his American family, her perception of herself as unremarkable, and her own medical mistake that forced her to leave hands-on medicine to lab research. Once in Brazil, she is confronted with the strange juxtaposition of colonial and uncivilized Manaus and the hippie gatekeepers of Dr. Swenson's outpost. Dr. Swenson herself is an indomitable force, who inspires both awe and fear in those who work for her, including the native tribe, the Lakashi.

Once Marina is accepted to the outpost, she travels down the river, and much like Conrad's Marlow, as civilization recedes the darkness of the jungle encroaches on Marina both physically and emotionally. However, the greatest darkness is the flagrant disregard for medical ethics as the means are constantly justified by the ends. The unique substance in the jungle may hold answers to multiple medical issues and Marina is quickly subsumed into both the Lakashi and research cultures. However, she quietly continues to doubt Dr. Swenson's methods and words. I don't want to reveal the climax, as it is a good one, but Marina has good reason to distrust her former teacher – who has been in the jungle too long.

Through most of the book, Marina moves about in a “state of wonder” - either drugged, sick, in shock or intimidated by her teacher. However, she finally makes sense of her own experiences and convictions and begins to make decisions for herself, rather than acquiesce to the demands of others.

“I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--the chance to find yourself. Your own reality--for yourself not for others--what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

“The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” ― Mark Twain

Title: Fire
Author: Kristin Cashore
Pages: 528
Publisher: Firebird
ISBN: 014241591X

I enjoyed Graceling, but did not enjoy Fire. It is a companion, not a sequel and takes place in a completely different kingdom with completely different characters. Fire, the main character, is half human, half monster in a world that seems to be a twisted version of a Dr. Seuss book. Fire's curse is her innate desirability that drives men (and some women) to do crazy things. Fortunately, she can read minds and anticipate most attacks. She is drawn into the politics of a neighboring kingdom and consents to use her mind-reading abilities to find the plots to overthrow the kingdom. Along the way, she accepts herself for who she is, makes friends that also accept her, and learns to use and control her powers. I have to admit that I skimmed more than read most of the book as I was not as intrigued with the politicking.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Yet another underdog, who does discovers her true purpose!

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Pages: 480
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books
ISBN: 015206396X

I don't remember why I initially put this book on my PaperBackSwap wish list, but I did. Then I missed out on getting a paper copy when I was on vacation and missed the email. But, I learned how to check out a Kindle book from my local library, so that was an unexpected bonus! Oh, and I have book 2 and figured this time, I would read a series in order!

This is classified as a young adult fantasy book. I guess that after Harry Potter and the Twilight series, the types of fantasy for children have gotten more mature. I didn't even realize this was a young adult novel until I looked it up after I read it. The writing was descriptive and clear, and the general story was engaging. In many ways it reminded me of Anne McCaffery's Harper Hall Trilogy, which I really enjoyed.

In this world, certain people are given “Graces” or in-born abilities to become an expert in something – sometimes that ability is useful, like cooking or music, but other times, it can be trivial. However, the main character, Katsa, was born with the Grace of killing. She is the niece of a king, and he uses her for his dirty work. However, she begins to question the ethics of her work, and she starts a secret society, called the Council, to protect people. During one of her missions, she runs into another person Graced with fighting ability and eventually finds that he is investigating the same thing she is, the kidnapping of an elderly member of the royal family of a neighboring kingdom. The kidnapped victim turns out to be the fighter's (named Po) grandfather. Katsa and Po work together to find the plot and realize that a king with evil and cruel ambitions has been Graced with the ability to control people's thoughts. They rescue Po's niece and struggle to kill him, which Katsa eventually does. In the process, Katsa discovers that her Grace is actually survival, and Po loses his sight, but develops his real Grace, the ability to sense the things around him. The story ends with a clear set up for the series, Po returns to his kingdom, Katsa continues to work for the Council, and the niece begins to rule her new kingdom.

I'm looking forward to picking up the next few books in the series.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lone Savior of Beautiful Woman

Title: Die Trying
Author: Lee Child
Pages: 567
Publisher: Jove Premium Edition
ISBN: 0515142247

I've gotten hooked on the dry humor of Jack Reacher so I've been picking up the novels at used books stores when I see them. But, that also means I'm reading them out of order. Fortunately, each book is really a stand alone story and it really doesn't seem to matter what order I read them in. In some ways, the series reminds me of the old 70s and 80s TV shows of The Incredible Hulk and Knight Rider. The hero, Jack Reacher, get embroiled in a dangerous situation and needs to investigate and save an innocent person – most often a beautiful woman. In this case, the beautiful woman is an FBI agent that was kidnapped because of who her godfather is – the President of the US. Jack becomes involved because he happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. At first, Holly tries to protect Jack until recognizes Jack has skills that can help her. The kidnappers – an extreme white supremacist group that wants to convert and control the nation. At the end, all issues are solved, and like Bruce Banner, Jack walks down the road, by himself, with muddy music playing in my head.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Historical Fiction - not Biography

Title: The Paris Wife
Author: Paula McLain
Pages: 320
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 0345521315

This is clearly a book club type book – written to generate discussion between women about the value of marriage, the importance of trust and respect in a relationship, and when to call it quits. 

I struggled at first to connect with the main character, Hadley Richardson, who became Ernest Hemingway's first wife, known as the Paris wife because that is where they lived for most of their marriage. This is not a biography of Hadley, but rather it is classified as a historical fiction. The author researched Hadley's life, read the letters between Hadley and Hemingway, and then imagined what their lives together might have been like. Hadley is portrayed as mousy, insecure and struggling to fine her own purpose in life. She is totally dedicated to Hemingway's career, but doesn't feel like she fits into his circle of friends. After losing Hemingway's packet of written stories, the bond between them is broken, as Hemingway no longer trusts Hadley, and the rest of the book is the slow moving train wreck of their marriage, as Hemingway has an affair with a mutual friend, who eventually becomes his second wife. 

 I guess people speculate about Hemingway's true feelings and regret about Hadley, because his last story before he died was in tribute to her. The story also explores the difficulties Hemingway had as revolutionary writer.There is a brief explanation from the author about why and how she wrote the book along with a list of book club questions.  In many ways, I found Hadley much like Bella (in the Twilight series - yes I read it, I'm a middle school teacher).  Both were in love with volatile men, didn't understand their effect on people, and didn't feel worthy of being with the men or included in their circles. (And both are whiny.)  However, from reading this book, I am more interested in learning about the real Hadley and hope to pick up some of the real biographies to see how close the historically documented one is to the fictional one.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Small Packages Can Fulfill Big Destinies

Title: Dragonlight
Author: Donita K. Paul
Pages: 377
Publisher: Waterbrook Press
ISBN: 1400073782

I've enjoyed McCaffrey's Dragon series for years – unfortunately, I've read all of them. No one can create a world like McCaffrey did, full of great characters and amazing creatures. But, as I was browsing through PaperBack Swap and found another series – The DragonKeeper Chronicles. It is not as well-written as McCaffrey's but still engaging. However, I was only able to find Book 5 – Dragonlight, on PaperBack Swap. So, I'm reading them out of order.

The main character, Kale is happily married to Bardon and Dragonkeeper of her castle. However, Bardon takes Kale on a quest as evil begins to invade the world. The story follows the group on the quest as they discover the destinies for each member – from the smallest, Toopka, to the blind boy and guardian, Sittiponder. Many themes pervade the book – from the importance of faith and having respect for fellow creatures on the earth. Bardon, a former knight, trained in the ways of the Tomes, continues to quote “principles” which sound like a combination of Christian proverbs and Confucian sayings. After a little surfing around, I found that The DragonKeeper Chronicles are being marketed as Christian speculative fiction. It is a bit ironic that this particular book is about a splinter cult that twists the teachings of the god Wulder to gain power in this world. As a science fiction book, it was a fun read, but as a Christian book, I would not endorse it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

We All Need a Little Inspiration

Title: Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
Author: Harriet Scott Chessman
Pages: 164
Publisher: A Plume Book
ISBN: 1583222723

I love Susan Vreeland's books about the fictionalization of artists' worlds. I stumbled on this title while browsing for any new work from her and I'm glad I did. It is a quick read, but gives an interesting perspective of Mary Cassatt's work. The Impressionists have been growing on me lately, mostly because of Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party which illustrated the process of Renoir's collecting and posing the various characters in his painting.

In this story, the perspective is Mary Cassatt's older sister Lydia, who for most of her life, has lived in the shadow of her vibrant sister. In addition, Lydia has a chronic disease that confines her to her bed frequently. But, what Lydia doesn't realize that her calm mindfulness and observation of the world inspires Mary's work. Throughout the book, Lydia struggles with her perception of herself and the splintering of her life. The book also has some nice prints of the paintings that Lydia actually modeled for. I would like to re-read this book just to savor it again.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Small town girl saves other world

Title: A Sorcerer's Treason
Author: Sarah Zettel
Pages: 499
Publisher: Tor
ISBN: 0765343746

My brother sent me this book because it was set in Wisconsin – the Apostle Islands specifically. Plus, it is a fantasy book, which is a genre I tend to like.

The story begins with Bridget, a scorned woman in her small town, saves a stranger from a ship wreck. Bridget lives in a lighthouse during the summer and dreads returning to the town. The stranger turns out to be from another world and offers Bridget a chance to be more than a lighthouse keeper – she has premonitions and in the stranger's world, this indicates powerful sorcerer. Bridger chooses to return to return with the stranger to Isavalta and becomes quickly involved in the political intrigue of the land. She has to navigate who to trust and how magic works in this new world. The story runs like a soap-opera with lots of double crossing and disguises, passionate characters. It was an interesting diversion during a plane ride and I admired the main character as the underdog in the story.