Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: Brooklyn

The cover proudly proclaims "Now a Major Motion Picture" and the inside is filled with a list of awards the book has won: 1) Winner of the Costa Book Award; 2)A New York Times Editors' Choice; 3) One of Newsweek's Fifty Books for Our Times; 4) One of The Guardian's Fifty Books That Defined the Decade. That's quite a list. Then, the reader is assaulted with 37 endorsements comparing him to Henry James, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Thus, when I opened to the first page, I was full to the brim with expectation for this book. While I did enjoy getting to know the main character (whose name gave me pause every time it was used because I couldn't quite get the hang of how it should be pronounced in my head), I don't think I would rate this book among top fifty lists. It was, indeed, moving and well-written. The characters felt like real, living people, caught in the intense dilemmas of life. Nonetheless, I ended the book with a sense of dissatisfaction.

Eilis Lacey is a young, Irish girl in a family struggling to survive after the loss of her father. Well, I think you're supposed to believe they are struggling, but some details feel contrary to that picture. Her older sister, Rose, plays golf with a golf club, and works in an office job. Her three brothers are off working in other parts of the country. It is only young Eilis who seems to be without a vocation. As the book opens, she is fetched to work for a cranky store owner named Miss Kelly. Thankfully, the heavens open and she is offered a chance to go to America to train as a bookkeeper there. For some reason, she cannot pass up this grand opportunity and leaves everything she knows to become a young foreigner in a distant land.

The story clearly paints the picture of discomfort immigrants face. Eilis is homesick and feels like an outsider in a whole different world than she has ever known. But Eilis is such a passive character as everything just seems to happen to her and she never really takes a decisive stand to make a place for herself. Just as she is finally gaining her bearings in the new country, she begins to fall in love with a young man, Tony. It is at this point that the tale picks up steam. Something dreadful happens at home that puts her in an awful dilemma. The final bits of the book follow her back to Ireland for a month-long visit that is excruciating.

The writing really did entrance, but I struggled with almost every decision the young girl made. Why did she feel she had to leave her family and go to America? Why did she allow things to progress so quickly with the boyfriend, when the reader is given every indication that she doesn't really feel a depth of devotion to him. She likes him, but it certainly doesn't feel like she overwhelmingly loves him. Why does she make a commitment to him before going home, when she knows full well that she will be drawn into a desire to remain in her homeland of Ireland? Why does she feel she cannot tell her mother about Tony? Why does she engage in a relationship with someone else while at home? I just found every aspect of her behavior to be mind-boggling. While I felt for her in her dilemma, it also seemed like she framed the dilemma with her own choices.

Moreover, the ending had me totally perplexed. I guess I assumed the author was leading the story in a particular direction and then that momentum was simply dropped and life went back to the way it was. I kept expecting to find some horrible information revealed in the unread letters from Tony. I thought she would feel the pull of her home country with more intensity. The allure of America didn't come through clearly for me. At best, she felt like a mismatched key. So, I ended the book with a great deal of dissatisfaction and confusion.

When I placed my name on the hold list for the book, I also placed my name on the list for the movie. It hasn't come up yet, but when it does, I will watch the movie. Hopefully, I won't be as dissatisfied with the movie as I was with the book. We shall see.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

This was a delightful debut novel. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is a story of a quest. On the quest, the main character grieves, changes, and grows. The reader gets to walk alongside on the journey. It had a similar feel to the novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (a big favorite of mine). While I still liked the Harold Fry novel better, this one delivered an interesting story full of self-discovery, hope, and redemption.

Arthur Pepper decides that the time has come to send his deceased wife's belongings to the charity shop. She has been gone for a year and he sets out to tackle the daunting task. Before he gets very far in his efforts, however, he comes across an unlikely piece of jewelry, a gold bracelet with eight little charms. His wife had always had simple tastes and Arthur doesn't remember ever seeing the bracelet before. When he discovers a phone number etched into the elephant charm, he places a call and begins a lengthy journey to sort out the past life his wife led prior to meeting him. His routines are disrupted, his identity questioned, and his life enriched by probing into the past.

I loved the cover, with its striking blue and small images representing India, Paris, and London. I liked the main character and enjoyed watching his growth. I appreciated the layered depth of the other characters, as well, as every individual Arthur encountered bore a unique story. The plot followed an easy pace and kept me turning pages. I would happily pick up another novel by Phaedra Patrick and hope she continues to write.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Day's Excitement

Yesterday we woke to find a huge limb from one of our back-yard trees perched precariously on top of the back porch roof. Around 11 p.m., the night before, Trevor and John both had heard the sound of a great creaking and then a loud rumble that shook the house, but just assumed it was thunder from the storm. This was the view from our living room window:

And the view from both sides of the back yard:

John called a tree removal service and they came right out to assess the damage. They felt it needed immediate removal. We were able to watch from inside as they rigged ropes to support the place where the branch broke away from the tree. Then they began sawing off smaller limbs and lowering them down to workmen to carry to the chipper/shredder. I was hoping to watch to see how they managed to get down the largest part of the limb, but I took the boys to the final day of the high school pool's sessions. By the time we returned, they were leaving and the tree limb was completely gone.

We are fortunate that the damage was so minimal. If the branch had been higher above the roof, it might have required significant repairs. All in all, it provided a day's excitement and an interesting story to file for our summer.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: Cometh the Hour

When news of Jeffrey Archer's newest Clifton Chronicles book hit, I eagerly placed my name on the hold list. However, by the time my turn arrived, I had noticed that our library had, indeed, purchased an audio form of the book, so I decided to wait a while longer and return the book while placing my name on the audio holds list. There's something about listening to this story, complete with British accent, that really fires me up.

Cometh the Hour is the penultimate book in the Clifton Chronicle series. A series that I thought would be only five books, turned out to be seven. This sixth installment was true to Archer form, full of suspense and plenty of plot turns. The book begins with the reading of a suicide note, a key piece of evidence in a tense legal battle for Emma Clifton, and ends with a murder. In between these bookend events, the book focuses on a few riveting tales: two love stories for Sebastian Clifton, the woes and wiles of Lady Virginia, Harry Clifton's attempts to free Anatoly Babakov, and more sinister plotting against the Barrington establishment and Farthings Bank.

Despite the length of 13 hours, it was quite easy to remain riveted to the story line from day to day. I was struck again by the wicked, cunning, devious ways of man exemplified in so many of the characters in this novel series. I will be happy to see the series finally resolved, though. At times it feels like it is just being filled with fluff to keep the story going through seven books. I didn't understand the purpose of including the quick, tragic love story. Moreover, I found the precocious daughter to be over-the-top and unrealistic. Still, I have my questions pulling me along: What will come of Harry and Emma Clifton, of their son Sebastian and his daughter, Jessica? What will transpire to bring down Lady Virginia and all opposition to the Barrington ventures. Will Harry's father's remains be found and evidence produced to prove that Harry was not, in truth, Emma's own half-brother? And finally, will the series go out with a bang, the way so many of Jeffrey Archer's well-crafted tales do?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Book Review: The Boy at the Top of the Mountain

After enjoying The Boy in the Striped Pajamas immensely, I was thrilled to see another similar title by the same author, John Boyne. The barbed wire on the cover, along with the mountains in the background, hinted that the book would again be about World War II. Although, I enjoyed the book, it wasn't quite as good as the other. It didn't provide the same thrilling unexpected ending the previous book is known for. Still, it was an interesting read and I couldn't say I was bored at any point. I began reading it, initially, with my sons, but they lost interest after the first chapter.

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain tells the story of a young boy, Pierrot, whose father is German and whose mother is French. When both parents die, Pierrot is shipped off to stay with his aunt Beatrix, who happens to be a housekeeper in a very extraordinary house on a mountain in Austria. Pierrot is told the master of the house visits occasionally and will probably not want a small child around. Still, Pierrot slowly develops a relationship with his powerful master and must decide whose side he is on in this ever-intensifying war.

I liked the main character, but felt quite sad reading his story. If Hitler had indeed allowed a youngster into his intimate circle, I feel quite certain that child would have responded in the way Boyne imagines. There was nothing unexpected in the outcome of the story. I'm not sure Pierrot's remorse at the end felt genuine enough. I would have liked to have seen more growth occurring as the story progressed, more internal struggle with the very things he was participating in. That's not to say Boyne didn't present internal struggle. He did, but somehow it still felt empty at the end when Pierrot looks back on his life with regret. Perhaps the character growth at the end felt too abrupt. For whatever reason, I wasn't as floored by this ending and didn't come away with intense emotional resonance. Worth a read, but it definitely pales in comparison to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Where Did She Go?

Two days ago, my father posted an old photo of me on Facebook that has been haunting me ever since:

There I stand in my Salvation Army uniform, complete with the seldom-worn bonnet, looking eager and hopeful and full of life. I immediately remembered the location of the shot. It was taken in the dining room of the International College for Officers in London, England. ICO was an old house on Sydenham Hill used to provide training for Salvation Army officers from all over the world. They hired young girls to work as domestics. Up until this time, most of those girls came to England from the continent with aims of serving while taking classes to hone their English language skills. I believe I was the first American to fill the role and I was so very grateful for the opportunities afforded through that job. I met many delightful officers who invited me to come stay with them during my travels in the final months of that travel period. I was young and the whole world lay waiting for me to explore it.

(photos courtesy of The Salvation - obviously not my poor photography quality, ha)

Here are some blurry photos of my time serving in that dining room. If I could have removed them from the album without damaging either the photos or the album, I would have attempted to scan them. Alas, they were stuck fast after all these years, sorry).

The top photo was taken for a specific reason. I had written an article and submitted it to the British Salvation Army periodical called The War Cry. They wanted a publicity shot to go alongside the article and sent someone over to take the photo. They must have given me a copy of the shot and I must have sent it home in a letter to my parents (if my father found it in their belongings).

At that time in my life I was so sure of myself. I was going to do great things. I was going to see the world and change it for the better. I had plans to return to the States and enter graduate school to study for a masters degree in history, with the intention of one day working as a curator for a special collection of literature, not unlike my work with The Wade Collection at Wheaton College (where I transcribed all of C.S. Lewis's personal letters during my undergraduate days).

I also recently decided to take action on my husband's continual requests for me to purge my endless papers in the basement. I started with a file full of notebooks and papers from my days at Wheaton and the University of Illinois. I found my diplomas, a British Literature Handbook written by Professor Leland Ryken, many notebooks full of class notes, and my 37 page research paper entitled "The Integration of Law and Religion in 19th Century Britain," along with the accompanying comments and a grade of A- given by Professor Walter Arnstein. Of course, I kept most of those things still. They bring forth such intense longing within me to return to those days, to return to the person I once was. But that young woman is long gone.

In her place, there is a tired old woman who seems to accomplish nothing and seems to be going nowhere. I sit waiting for a writing career to take off and prove that my time here is of some value. Day by day passes and the most I can say is that I am raising my boys. Whether or not I am effective in raising them to be the young men I hope they will become is yet to be seen. But, as I look at the above photo, it brings forth so many unfulfilled hopes and dreams. I never did find a curator position. I left off my schooling after my masters degree, so that I could put my husband through graduate school. Then came children and the move to this isolated house to raise them and somewhere along the way, my ambitions and lust for life evaporated. How I long to be doing more with my one life! How I long to be making a difference in some way!

I went on-line the other night and, out of curiosity, plugged in the term "museum jobs in Indianapolis." While most of them brought feelings of indifference, there was a job I felt I may have been qualified for back in the day. It is a position with the Indiana Historical Society as Multicultural Collection Coordinator. There are many things I find appealing about the position. Its multicultural emphasis brings up so many of my feelings stirred in my missions work in the Philippines. The job requires completion of at least 20 oral histories and that brings to mind my experience with oral histories (I assisted Professor Lyle Dorsett as he interviewed C.S. Lewis's first cousin, Ruth Parker, and then went on to conduct my own oral history interviews with two elderly Salvationists when I wrote a history of The Salvation Army in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, for their 100th anniversary). I absolutely loved conducting oral history interviews and writing up my findings. I would so love to work with a library again, as I did back at the Wade Collection, providing tours and leading individuals in their search for historical information.

But then, my inner naysayer kicks in and says, "Why would they possibly hire you? You haven't been in the workforce for a decade, your qualifications are all out-dated and dried up. You'd never get the job. Besides, you're more interested in part-time work, so that you can continue to pursue your writing." But then I take a look at that picture again and something stirs within me, a deep desire to re-capture the person I once was. As my life coach once told me, several years ago, I wasn't made to swim in the shallows. I was meant to swim in the deep. How to get back out into the deep? Now, there's the question of the hour. If only all it took was to put on a uniform and a bonnet again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Review: Where the Light Gets In

I've been intrigued by personal memoirs about experiences with dementia and Alzheimer's ever since my own mother was diagnosed with some form of dementia after she was given anesthesia for a heart procedure over a year ago. Our family is still in the early stages of confronting and dealing with this life-changing issue that has descended on my mother. Thus, when this book was referenced in the new book acquisitions at our library, I put my name on the hold list for it. Where The Light Gets In: Losing My Mother Only to Find Her Again is the story of Kimberly Williams-Paisley's experience with her mother's rare form of dementia, called primary progressive aphasia. I recognized Kimberly immediately as the actress who played the young bride in Steve Martin's remake of "Father of the Bride."

I found it very difficult to read this account. It just hits too close to home. Although the author's mother was younger than my mother when the symptoms appeared, the family experience of the change in dynamic was heart-rending. We are facing many of the same battles. For now, my father is the sole care-giver and I really don't know how much longer he can remain in that role without some form of assistance. Every book I read warns about the health toll for the caregiver if they attempt to provide all the care themselves and do not get any personal breaks. As the child, I feel that I have no real say in how the situation is handled and that is frustrating. Even in the midst of all the present chaos with their household mold removal, my dad continues to assert that she is fine with it all. My sister and I both want to go down to help in a two-fold manner (one staying with my father and helping to purge endless stuff while the other takes my mother away from the house and distracts her with a trip or errands), but so far it has not worked out and my mother is even opposed to the idea because she feels it will simply add to their already overwhelming amount of stress.

Enough about the personal connections I made while reading. Kimberly Williams-Paisley tells of her mother's sharp mind and gifted knack for communication. Her mother worked with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, raising money for that non-profit, until she was unable to continue because her brain could no longer bring forth the words she needed. The whole mother-daughter relationship shifted when this illness was diagnosed. Kimberly struggled with her long-distance care-giving role. She tells the story well and fleshes out all of the emotional turmoil associated with losing a parent to dementia while they are still physically alive (the "Old Mom," as she calls her, is gone, submerged in a prison of brain deterioration). It was so difficult to read of how her mother became aggressive and even bit her husband when he was attempting to help her. How tragic! How devastating!

The title for the book apparently comes from a Leonard Cohen song called "Anthem." The lyrics speak of letting go of expectations and our yearning for what we think life should be. They encouraged the author to find new ways to connect, to express gratitude for what was left instead of focusing on what was lost, and to relish the small mysterious moments of her mother's presence. They read:

"Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

While it was a difficult read, it was fully absorbing and well-written. It offered a chance to step into the shoes of someone who is further down the path I am just beginning to traverse. It reminded me that while none of this will be easy, I am not alone and can find others who can relate to the wide-ranging emotions that come with losing a parent to the illness of dementia. If you have a parent struggling and changing because of dementia, this might be a book you would benefit from reading.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Review: In Front of God and Everybody

I'm cheap. I admit it. When I see a book I might like at the thrift store (not even a regular price bookstore - ha), I will wait on buying the book until I find out if the book is available at one of my local libraries. This is how I stumbled upon the Confessions of April Grace series. I saw book two in the series, Cliques, Hicks, and Ugly Sticks, at the thrift store and the back cover blurb enticed. My library, it happens, has the first, but not the second book. And having read the first now, I would probably venture to buy the second.

In the first book, In Front of God and Everybody, we meet the main character and narrator, April Grace. The author has done a fine job of capturing voice and presents a colorful girl with strong opinions and not enough sense to keep them to herself. This was a pleasant Christian middle-grade novel, with great appeal for young girls who will certainly laugh at April Grace's insights into the chaos going on around her.

Here is the back cover pitch: "Growing up in the country is never easy, but it sure is funny - especially if you happen to have a sister obsessed with being glamorous, a grandma with a new boyfriend, hippie friends who never shower, and new snooty-falluty neighbors from the city who test everyone's patience. From disastrous dye jobs to forced apologies and elderly date tagalongs, you'll laugh 'til you cry as you read the Confessions of April Grace."

I agree with reviewer dSavannah who says in her Amazon review: "One of the things I like best about this book is that although it is Christian-based, it does not scream or preach at you. The Reilly family lead by example - by being beyond kind to their neighbors, by sharing, by showing tolerance and respect, by being patient. They invite the St. James' to church, but they don't try to proselytize them - they simply live their lives in the best way possible. The author also handles some weighty subjects - particularly teen eating disorders - with kindness and compassion. April learns a lot of lessons, particularly about not being judgmental, lessons that all of us can use!"

I loved the title. I loved the narrator. It was an easy read and a quick story to digest. I will certainly look up April Grace again to see what is going on in her neck of the woods.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Book Review: Big Little Lies - Highly Recommend

With every Liane Moriarty book I read (I've read all of three - ha), I grow more impressed with her writing abilities. First of all, she has a great skill for coming up with clever concepts and fleshing them out with believable characters (example, What Alice Forgot). She also manages to produce a story of great depth, exploring emotions and dilemmas the common man can relate to. She peoples her books with interesting flawed characters and puts them in unbearable circumstances (both The Husband's Secret and this one, Big Little Lies). Her writing is smooth and easy-to-read and her dialogue is realistic (although I missed listening to this one in audio form so that I could relish the Australian accent).

Big Little Lies plunges the reader into schoolyard politics and the powerfully intense emotions parents feel when their child is threatened either by a bully or by lies spread about them. But the story goes far deeper than the lie told about one small boy, accusing him of bullying. It ends up revealing all sorts of lies the grown-ups are telling themselves and each other. As the back cover proclaims, it is "a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive."

I loved the characters. First there is feisty Madeline, who wonders how it is possible that the same ex-husband who abandoned her with their daughter is now a fellow parent of a kindergarten student with her own youngest daughter. Even though she is happily married, she must fight off mounting resentment as her older daughter looms further and further into her ex-husband's household instead of her own. The step-mother is introducing the teenager to a whole new way of life focused on vegan diet and social activism.

Next, the reader meets Celeste, a beautiful picture-perfect mother of twin boys. Celeste has her own demons to battle. Though her bank account comes through for whatever she desires, her deepest desires go unfulfilled.

Finally, we meet Jane, a single mother who has just moved to their small coastal community. When her son is accused of bullying a child, Jane is unsure what to believe. He adamantly denies it and she strongly wishes to believe him, but she harbors her own doubts. As Madeline and Celeste befriend Jane, they position themselves against the accusing mother, with her own cohorts.

What begins as a simple story of schoolyard scandal ends in death. Questions loom over the whole tale: Who is dead? Who is responsible? How did the parent social event dissolve into chaos and lead to criminal investigation? Moriarty pulls the reader in, all the while providing snippet after snippet of revelation yet holding fast with intense suspense. I cannot help but highly recommend this book. Even though it is long, it reads quickly and will leave you thinking about the story for a good long time.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Book Review: Brush of Wings

It was pure happenstance that I ended up reading two Karen Kingsbury novels at the same time. This one, Brush of Wings, was on the shelf at the library when I was in dire need of another audio book to fill my daily walking time. Again, it was trust in the author's name that led me to snatch it up. Only after I had completed listening to the book did I realize it was a culmination book, the third in her Angels Walking series. I probably would have waited until I read the first two, otherwise, but the book did serve perfectly well as a stand-alone title and garnered 5 star reviews from 90% of Amazon reviewers.

The book contains all the excitement of grand storytelling: good versus evil, a spiritual battle, a damsel in distress, a knight in shining armor, obstacles to the quest, a noble sacrifice, and supernatural intervention into earthly matters. Mary Catherine is in need of a heart transplant but cannot bring herself to share the news with those closest to her for fear they will worry and attempt to stop her from heading to Uganda to work with orphans. She has given up her dreams of marriage and children, and pushed away the love of Marcus Dillinger, in a desperate attempt to live fully the last days of her life. But, God has important plans surrounding her life and she has no idea how many angels are working on her behalf to bring her to God's ultimate purposes.

I will say the beginning was a bit confusing (perhaps just an audio problem) as the reader is introduced to numerous angels and humans and the gist of the story line. But, once I was a fair bit in, things became clearer and I was sucked into the story. At one point, I thought I knew where the story was headed (thought a certain individual was going to die, providing the necessary heart for a transplant to take place), but the ending didn't go exactly as I had anticipated. Despite that, the story ends on a positive note, stirring great reflection on the lengths God must go to in order to protect and carry out His divine purposes in our lives. Moreover, the reader comes away realizing how important each life is in the life story of another individual and how important prayer is for believers to participate in God's plans.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Book Review: Waiting for Morning

Whenever I take trips, I try to bring along a book that belongs to me, just in case it gets lost or damaged in some way. Thus, after asking for this book for Christmas (if I'm going to gamble on Christian fiction, I tend to lean toward the writing of Karen Kingsbury), it finally made its way to my reading stack when I left for the women's retreat and then again for our family trip to Cedar Point. Still, my reading of the book was somewhat distracted by all the things going on.

In Waiting for Morning, we meet Hannah Ryan, a woman who has it all. Her loving husband and delightful daughters are returning home from a camping trip when a drunk driver slams into their vehicle and the Ryan family is torn asunder. Hannah finds it very difficult to cling to any semblance of her previous faith in God. Despite the influence of a Christian lawyer and a Christian friend at the head of the M.A.D.D. organization, Hannah wants nothing more to do with God. Instead, she is hell-bent on seeking revenge through a first-degree murder case against the man responsible for the accident, so much so that she ignores her surviving daughter, Jenny. All Jenny wants is to be with her dad and sister again.

While the story followed a predictable story arc and I figured out the ending well in advance, it was still a heart-rending story with believable characters in a realistic dilemma. Sadly, I felt a bit distressed over the portrayal of the mother in the story. It was hard to like her or her treatment and lack of intervention for her daughter. Still, the loss of faith was understandable and portrayed in a sympathetic light. The story clearly displayed the bondage a lack of forgiveness brings. Christians are not immune from the tragedies of life and Karen Kingsbury makes it her goal to address the issues in a way that strengthens a reader's faith.