Saturday, July 19, 2008

Two by Marisa de los Santos

May brought an incredible back-to-back reading experience for me with Love Walked In and Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos. I have a few passages of note on both books, but as for reviews, I am going to direct you to Lesley's Book Nook for her reviews of Love Walked In and Belong to Me--Les has captured the essence of both these books in her wonderful reviews!

Love Walked In

Words to live by:
I've always been more than a little proud of myself for having been fourteen and deeply benighted about almost everything, but having had the sense to recognize what is surely a universal truth: Jimmy Stewart is always and indisputably the best man in the world, unless Cary Grant should happen to show up.

How a story "feels" (haven't you lovingly stroked a book?):
On the third day, just before they went home, the kids in Clare's class took the holiday gifts they'd made for their parents off the walls and out of the cases in which they'd been displayed. Clare took down "Annike and the Bears" and slid her palm lightly across the cover. A story is only words living inside a person's head, she thought, floating and invisible. But she'd written the words down and make a book, an object that took its place in the world of objects.

On self-help books:
...the question turned me into a first-name-only, hypothetical character in the pages of a self-help book. Exactly the kind of book we all disdain because it reduces to formulae our irreducible human selves, but which we at least think about buying (thus abetting the book's piranhalike devouring of the New York Times bestseller list). That time we had a terrible cold and were listlessly switching channels on the tiny television we hardly ever watch and even forget we have, we happened upon Oprah discussing such a book and found that, as much as we hated to admit it, the book rang true--at least some it rang somewhat true, truer than we'd ever expected.
On love:
There's a kind of holiness to love, requited or not, and those people who don't receive it with gratitude are arrogant beyond saving.

On journal writing:
Getting the word right mattered, but so did describing his voice when he talked and capturing the feeling that filled her as he spoke and after he spoke. She thought about that word "capture," how it put a writer on par with a fur trapper or big-game hunter, and how it implied that stories were whole and roaming around loose in the world, and a writer's job was to catch them. Except of course that a writer didn't kill what she caught, didn't stuff it and hang it on a wall; the point was to keep the stores alive.

Belong To Me

On the first (real) day of fall:
The next day turned out to be the first day of fall, one of my favorite days of the year. I'm not talking about the actual autumnal equinox, which had come and gone a week earlier and had felt pretty much like all the summer days preceeding it. What I mean by the first day of fall is that day when you suddenly understand with your whole body that the season has changed. When the air feels snappier against our skin and the sky's blueness turns wistful, and the humming of insects shifts pitch, and you just know like you know your own name that summer is over.

On cell phones: admittedly old-ladyish uneasiness with cell phone culture (you know what I mean, it blurs the boundaries between the public/private realms, discourages quiet introspection, results in abominable driving, fills the world with silly noises, et cetera)....

On the action of love:
"What are we going to do?" As soon as I said it, I understood its power, this single, simple question, what I had spent the last two days stumbling toward. I asked the question, and what had frightened me so much was suddenly no longer a threat. It was something for us to do together, to make part of us.... Everything turned on the word "we," a synonym for love, the thing that saves us all.

On brain vacations: could get used to the not-thinking, the haphazard floating through days, your brain lounging around like a tourist in a loud shirt, grasping nothing heavier than a magazine and a drink (umbrellaed, water beaded, pineaple hanging off its rim like an elephant ear), lulled by the sound of seagulls and ocean waves.

Love Walked In
4.5/5 (General Fiction scale)
Plume [Penguin Group imprint] (2005)
Trade Paperback
307 pages
Finished: June 2008

Dedication: For David Teague: You;re the Nile, You're the Tower of Pisa

Belong To Me
4/5 (General Fiction scale)
Wm. Morrow (2008)
388 pages

Dedication: For Charles and Annabel, my sleek brown otters

Forward from Here

Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, used the occasion of her sixtieth birthday to publish a new collection of essays entitled, Forward from Here: Leaving Middle Age—and Other Unexpected Adventures. (I often wonder at the necessity of the “coloned” book title. Would we not understand the title without this seemingly parenthetic explanation?) The Hippie lifestyle in Vermont as described in the first essay, "Hippies in the Hot Tub," didn’t exactly mirror my 1970s experiences; however, Lindbergh’s thoughtful passages regarding the who’s and the what’s of passing life experiences grabbed me and didn’t let go until the last page.

From Publishers Weekly
In this collection of poignant essays, Lindbergh struggles to extract meaning, and even solace, from an imperfect everyday reality. Heading her list of concerns is her looming 60th birthday and the change and decline that it symbolizes-the departure from home of her children, a benign brain tumor, the therapeutic drug culture that is the hallmark of old age in America. Despite her anxieties and losses, she manages to find in fragile, flawed things-a broken sea shell, a heron that's lost a leg-a kind of beauty. Lindbergh also explores her fraught relationship with her father, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, "an angry, restless, opinionated perfectionist" whose "very presence alternately crowded and startled everyone," and grapples with the discovery that he had secretly fathered seven children-her half siblings-in Europe. Set mostly amid the tranquil surroundings of her Vermont farmstead, Reeve's essays are suffused with a sly, gentle humor that supports her quiet resolve to carry on.

On relationships:
There is something wonderful about unexpected affection, whether it develops between an octogenarian and an eight-year-old, a staunch conservative Republican and a progressive liberal Democrat, or a Yankee farmer and a hippie homesteader. It delights me that every so often the good feeling that two people have for each other is too strong for their biases and their upbringing, and defeats both in a flood of fellow feeling neither can explain.

On aging:
Fortunately, fears fed by the imagination tend to lose energy and diminish over time. Now I’m close to sixty, and though I don’t always recognize the face I see in the mirror, something has changed in the way I think about aging and dying. I have an increased awareness of my own aging. The process increasingly interests and amazes me, annoys and irritates me, and sometimes it still frightens me, too, but much, much less than it used to. I find that along with the annoyance and irritation there is amusement—how often and in how many places can I lose my glasses in a day?—and that in the place of the old fear for my own physical survival there is an ongoing very real sadness at the absence of the friends and family members who have died before me.

On love and loss:
As I journey on, I carry my lost loved ones with me: my sister, my mother, and all the others. I have learned over the years that I can do this, that love continues beyond loss. It continues not abstractly but intimately, and it continues forever. My experience has also made me understand that loss is inevitable, and that loss, too, continues forever, right along with love.

On “ongoingness”:
There have been one or two horrible times in my life, as there are in too many lives, when the “ongoingness” my mother taught me to value was interrupted in a radical way and neither daily rhythms nor the discipline of writing could restore my balance. An event can be so cataclysmic that it pulls its surviving victims right out of life to plummet into a deep and terrible darkness where there is no solid ground and where day-to-day comforts are meaningless. I have learned by living through a few such times, however, that daily life has a strength and a staying power even more persistent than the terrible downward forces of catastrophe. Dailiness outlasts despair. For a while the rhythms of daily life may seem to be submerged, even drowned in disaster, but that is never true. Sooner or later, after mornings and evenings and mornings and evenings and mornings and evenings again, however many of them it takes, and never by dishonoring reality or by displacing grief, never by rushing the inevitability of feeling, meaning always returns.

On sustenance as we age:
I’m convinced that what we really need most to sustain us as we grow older, more than any drug on the market, is this kind of appreciative awareness, along with compassion, a sense of humor, and simple common sense. Side effects will include a certain amount of pain, a fair share of sorrow, recurring doses of discomfort great and small, and an immeasurable, priceless quantity of peace of mind.

There are many more passages that I have marked, but I will leave it to your reading of Forward from Here to find the words that sing out to you.

After hearing Ms. Lindbergh speak at Porter Square Books on May 7, I am looking forward to reading Under a Wing and No More Words. And I am eagerly hunting down her children’s books written in rhyme!

Forward from Here would be a thoughtful reading for everyone, not just those of us approaching or in our 60s. Any reader could find direction in learning to embrace the everyday, to appreciate the details of life from the hissing of a teakettle to the crunch of stone underfoot on a daily walk, or to make friends with that most important person in life--yourself.

5/5 (Non-fiction scale)
Simon & Schuster (2008)
220 pages
Finished: May 2008

Dedication: To Nat

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Third Angel

Opening a new Alice Hoffman novel is like opening the most anticipated gift of the year. You know you will again be swept away into a world like no other and meet characters unlike any you’ve met before. The Third Angel is Alice Hoffman at her gift-giving best. The worlds of 1999, 1966 and 1952 bring us coincidentally interwoven heroines joined one to the other by that cruelest of fate—being in love with the wrong man. And characters? How about a ghost, a hotel room and a heron! Hoffman tips the balance of narrative momentum as she takes us back in time or forward in time if you do, as Ms. Hoffman herself suggests, and read the interwoven stories back to front.

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this elegant and stunning novel, veteran heartstring-puller Hoffman (Here on Earth; Seventh Heaven) examines the lives of three women at different crossroads in their lives, tying their London-centered stories together in devastating retrospect. High powered New York attorney Maddy Heller arrives in 1999 London having had an affair with Paul, her sister Allie's fiancé,; she must now cope with the impending marriage, and with Paul's terminal illness—which echoes the girls' mother's cancer during their childhood. Hoffman then shifts to heady 1966 London and to Frieda Lewis, Paul's future mother, who falls for a doomed up-and-coming songwriter knowing he will break her heart. The narrative then shifts further back, to 1952 and to Maddy and Allie's future mother, Lucy Green. A bookish 12-year-old wise beyond her years, Lucy sails with her father and stepmother from New York to London for a wedding. There, she becomes an innocent catalyst to a devastating event involving a love triangle. Hoffman interweaves the three stories, gazing unerringly into forces that cause some people to self-destruct (There was no such thing as too much for a girl who thought she was second best) and others to find inner strength to last a lifetime.

On love:
There was good love and there was bad love. There was the kind that helped raise a person above her failings and there was the desperate sort that struck when someone least wanted or expected it.

On fairy tale love doomed from the start – Maddy and Paul have met purely by chance at Kensington Palace leaving flowers in memory of Princess Diana, and Maddy recalls the stories of Charles and Diana’s courtship:
When Maddy first heard the story, shed wanted to shout, What on earth is romantic about doomed love? But she’d said nothing. Only that Diana had been a foot not to know whom she was marrying in the first place. Maddy had seen an interview in which Price Charles had been asked if he was in love. “Whatever love is,” he had said with Diana sitting right next to him. She should have gotten up and walked away then.

The fatal first step into love:
It was so easy. She opened the door for him and the rest was like disappearing into the dark night to a place where no one could find you. No footsteps, no fingerprints, no evidence of any kind.

Clues forward and back, back and forward:
It was possible to read the story two ways: Front to back, the heron returned to his heron wife and the world of the sky. Back to front, he stayed with his one true love on earth.

Who is the third angel among us? Frieda’s father, a doctor who made house calls, said this of angels:
...there was the Angel of Life, the Angel of Death, and then there was the Third Angel. “It was either the Angel of Life or the Angel of Death who would ride in the back of the car when my father went on house calls, but he never knew which one it was until he arrived at his destination. Even then he said he was often surprised. It was hard to tell the difference between the two sometimes.” …and the third one? “Well, he’s the most curious. You can’t even tell if he’s an angel or not. You think you’re doing him a kindness, you think you’re the one taking care of him, while all the while, he’s the one who’s saving your life.”

Alice Hoffman on loving the wrong man (Hallmark Magazine May 2008):
The wrong man is who we believe we deserve. He’s the man we think we can save. He’s the one only we can understand or fix or relate to. He’s an outlaw, an outsider, a fallen angel, a blank slate, a charmer, a man we go back to despite his flaws. Just as there are women who stay with the wrong man, there are just as many who leave him, and still others who realize that, for a little while at least, the wrong man was, for reasons only they can determine, right for them.

My delight in opening yet another Hoffman gift was enhanced by attending a reading/signing on April 22 where Ms. Hoffman spoke about third angels (the people who come into our lives unannounced and who make changes in our lives…third angels that we don’t even realize until much later who they were and what they have done for us) and the wrong man (who may truly have been the right man all along). Alice Hoffman started out as a voracious young reader who now delights us all with her writing. She says she was “lost in the magic of reading and is now lost in the magic of writing.” And the ghost in Room 708? Real.

5/5 (General Fiction Scale)
Shaye Areheart Books [Random House Imprint] (2008)
278 pages
Finished: April 2008

Outside the Back Door

Portulaca is a favorite summer can you not be happy
when greeted by this display as you go in and out the back door?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dunkin' Karma

Everyday work life fell into a tidy routine. Out at just the right time to be ahead of the school buses crisscrossing town; out at just the right time to be ahead of the long coffee lines; out at just the right time to enjoy a half hour of quiet in my office before the whole office erupted in the daily hum of activity. It was all so perfect—even down to Dee, seeing me pull into the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, having my coffee waiting on the counter. Then, I did the unthinkable and changed the routine.

One morning I passed by an unusual early morning crowd at Dunkin’ and opted for Panera—just this once, I said under the pressure of having to finish preparing for a nine o’clock meeting. Walking in, I noticed the calm of the moment—a young man locking his bicycle before ambling in for his coffee; two elderly women deep in conversation; a gentleman of a certain age with The New York Times opened in front of him. These people impressed me—they all were doing their “morning thing” but it all looked so relaxed. I was hooked. Panera was close enough to work that I could spend a half hour there, sipping my morning brew and reading! I was going to make a great trade—a half hour of work preparation for a half hour of reading and coffee.

Then, to make the trade seem even better, my Kindle arrived from Amazon. No longer would I be slave to a tote bag with four or five different books. (You never knew what would strike your fancy as you sat down to enjoy your half hour gift!) Now, I had book choices at the ready in a lightweight, ready-to-go format. Even if I didn’t like my current book choices, I could always add another—right on the spot through the wonders of Kindle WiFi. Oh, mornings couldn’t get any better than this.

What’s that? We’re closing the corporate office? My commute will now be a telecommute? But wait—I have this new morning routine, and it’s really neat.

Well, I now have an even neater morning routine—totally relaxed, don’t even have to put on make-up. I bunny slipper to the kitchen, grab a coffee from the Keurig machine, and head to my newly created home office. Oh, and my Kindle? A lifesaver when it came to clearing out the spare-room-now-an-office of the accumulated piles of books—read and unread. Available on Kindle? Goes in donation pile. Amazing the space that a 10 ounce, 7x5” device can create.

I’m waiting now for the ceiling fan to be installed in my office. When my son comes to do the job, maybe we’ll celebrate with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee!

The Memory of Water

As is often the case, the cover drew me to The Memory of Water by Karen White—there was just something about the steely blue-green that guided my hand to pick this book up from the New in Fiction table instead, perhaps, the book next to it.

From the back cover
On the night their mother drowns trying to ride out a storm in a sailboat, sisters Marnie and Diana Maitland discover there is more than one kind of death. There are also the deaths of innocence, of love, and of hope. Both harbor secrets about what really happened that night—secrets that will erode their lives as they grow into adulthood. After ten years of silence between the sisters, Marnie is called back to the South Carolina Lowcountry by Diana’s ex-husband, Quinn. His young son has returned from a sailing trip with his emotionally unstable mother, and he is deeply disturbed and refusing to speak. In order to help the traumatized boy Marnie must reopen old wounds and bring the darkest memories of her past to the surface. And she must confront Diana…before they all go under.

Marnie, reacting to her decision first to leave to find her own life in Arizona, then to return to help her nephew:
She walked away quickly, her shoes kicking up gravel and sand and old crumbled shells, crushing them beneath her feet like dried-up dreams and memories she thought had long ago been relegated to dust.

Marnie, reflecting on the beauty of the marsh:
I watched as the creek surged at high tide, muddy brown and astonishingly strong. Despite everything, I still saw the beauty of the marsh and found respect for the strength that underlay its loveliness. My grandfather once told me that our Lowcountry marsh was like a mother to the mainland, buffering the continent from frequent storms like a mother would protect her children, and acting as the ocean’s incubator by nurturing the nourishing the filter feeders at the bottom of the food chain. I had liked this analogy, assuring me that nurturing mothers did exist after all, and I found comfort in the knowledge that I had been lucky enough to be born in this place of liquid arms and maternal love.

Marnie, remembering the wonder of believing in Santa Claus and the moment a child no longer believes:
I walked down the stairs, following the scent of roasting turkey and apple pie, feeling as giddy as a child. But there were no cookies for Santa or any other holiday traditions besides the opening of presents and the wonderful turkey dinner prepared by Quinn. He’d informed me that a year before Gil had approached him and calmly explained that there was no reason for his parents to stay up late on Christmas Eve to put together toys and lay out presents from Santa. Apparently Gil had ceased to believe in Santa following a forage into Quinn’s desk drawer to find a stapler when he had emerged instead with Gil’s letters to Santa, neatly tied with a ribbon. As sad as I’d been to hear that Gil’s childhood had grown a bit shorter, the story had also had the effect of fluttering my heart with the detail of Quinn keeping the letters and tying them with a ribbon.

Diana, remembering a love of books shared with her sister:
I stood and moved to the bookshelf I kept in the corner of my studio. It was filled with all the books I had ever owned. I‘d never been a huge reader like Marnie, but after she’d learned to read, it was to her voice that I fell asleep every night. Even now, when I pick up Anne of Green Gables or National Velvet, I hear Marnie’s voice reading to me. I have those books still, an innocent part of my childhood I shared with my sister that I could never give up.

Once settled into the multiple narrators’ voices (the sisters—Marnie and Diana; the ex-husband, Quinn; and the young son, Gil), I found this story of a family looking to heal and be whole again very captivating. Somewhat bothersome was the constant reminders of the “terrible thing that happened at sea that night.” That something went terribly wrong on a nighttime sail is the event that hurls the family’s story into full spin; constantly reminding me of this as the healing progresses was annoying.

Each chapter of The Memory of Water is headed with a quote which I like to go back and reread at the end of the chapter to see how/if the quote reinterprets the chapter just read. Here, out of context, are some I flagged:

The human heart is like a ship on a stormy sea driven about by winds blowing from all four corners of heaen. ~ Martin Luther

When beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang. ~ Herman Melville

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing river of time, the beginning and the end. ~ Rachel Carson

I finished the Memory of Water sitting at the Emerson Inn in Rockport, MA. The early April day was steely gray, and the ocean beyond the cove was filled with stormy whitecaps—the same setting that I have seen brilliant with sunlight reflecting from the crests of waves…memories of water.

Emerson Inn parlor.

The view outside.

4/5 (General Fiction scale)
NAL Accent (2008)
Trade Paperback
315 pages
Finished: April 2008

Dedication: This book is dedicated to the original Highfalutin, and to all those who lost so much in Hurricane Katrina.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Robert Murphy

To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other's hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time. ~Carla Ortega

Robert Murphy, my brother and my friend
October 13, 1938 - March 20, 2008

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Alice Hoffman

April 8 will bring us Alice Hoffman's new book, The Third Angel. Her website has been completely redesigned and is exquisite--just as the author herself. I am looking forward to this new addition to the many hours of reading bliss Ms. Hoffman's other books have brought to me.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Garden Spells

There are reading times that nothing will do except a full fledged romance novel. You know the kind--pulls at your heartstrings, gives you a hero and heroine that you root for to beat the odds, guarantees that signature HEA (Happily Ever After ending). Then there are reading times that call for a serious look at characters, their families and friends, and how they cope and resolve what life is handing HEA on the story's horizon. What bothers me is when the former is marketed as the latter, and that (IMHO) was the case with Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen.

From Publishers Weekly
Two gifted sisters draw on their talents to belatedly forge a bond and find their ways in life in Allen's easygoing debut novel. Thirty-four-year-old Claire Waverley manifests her talent in cooking; using edible flowers, Claire creates dishes that "affect the eater in curious ways." But not all Waverley women embrace their gifts; some, including Claire's mother, escape the family's eccentric reputation by running away. She abandoned Claire and her sister when they were young. Consequently, Claire has remained close to home, unwilling to open up to new people or experiences. Claire's younger sister, Sydney, however, followed in their mother's footsteps 10 years ago and left for New York, and after a string of abusive, roustabout boyfriends, returns to Bascom, N.C., with her five-year-old daughter, Bay. As Sydney reacquaints herself with old friends and rivals, she discovers her own Waverley magic. Claire, in turn, begins to open up to her sister and in the process learns how to welcome other possibilities.

Garden Spells was a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection touted as "unputdownable." While the story was interesting and the characters somewhat captivating, I certainly had no problem setting it aside for other reading fare. My recollection of the Garden Spells display, prominent on the first table when entering my local B&N, is that there was no mention of this being a romance nor does that dreaded category imprint appear on the dust cover spine. It all makes me wonder about who decides and how the decision is made to publish a $7.99 paperback with the genre clear to all comers on the spine vs. a $20 hardcover eagerly shelved with Fiction/General Literature. Was Garden Spells intended to be a lite version of Alice Hoffman's The Probable Future? Was Garden Spells intended to ride the wave of the Three Sisters Island trilogy (Dance Upon the Air, Heaven and Earth, & Face the Fire) of Nora Roberts?

Despite my ambivalence about the marketing of Garden Spells, I did enjoy the story and found the characters charming. I'll also pick up her next book,
The Sugar Queen, due out in May--if for nothing more than to see how Addison Allen handles the color red (a favorite Hoffman allusion).

2.5/5 (General Fiction scale)
3.5/5 (Romance scale)
Bantam (September 2007)
Hard Cover; 286 pages

Dedication: For my mam. I love you.

The Secret Between Us

Most of us have done it--jumped in and created a free pass for one of our children. Please excuse Brian because...; please excuse Linda because.... What would the reaction be if our urge to protect spun out of control as it did for Deborah Monroe and her daughter Grace in Barbara Delinsky's The Secret Between Us?

From Publishers Weekly
Relationships are brought to the limit in Delinsky's splendid latest exploration of family dynamics. On a rainy night, Deborah Monroe and her teenage daughter, Grace, are driving home when their car hits a man. The victim, who turns out to be Grace's history teacher, is unconscious but alive. Although Grace was driving, Deborah sends her home and takes responsibility for the accident when the cops show up. Deborah is juggling a lot: as a family doctor, she is in private practice with her über-demanding widower father, who is trying to hide a drinking problem; her son, Dylan, is vision impaired; her mother's death continues to affect the family; Deborah is still dealing with her ex-husband's new, separate life; and her unmarried sister, Jill, has just announced she's pregnant. Grace's guilt about not taking responsibility for the accident makes her withdraw from friends and family, and the accident victim turns out to have a more complex private life than anyone imagined. The author seamlessly resolves relationship issues without sentiment, throws in a promising romance for Deborah and offers a redemptive scene between Grace and her grandfather. Delinsky combines her understanding of human nature with absorbing, unpredictable storytelling—a winning combination.

After my disappointment with Family Tree, I was happy to find that this favorite author had once again grabbed my attention and pulled me immediately in to the time and place of Deborah and her family.

4/5 (General Fiction scale)
Doubleday (January 2008)
352 pages

Christmas in March

The last of our Christmas presents was opened last night as Pink Martini took the stage at the Opera House in Boston.

My daughter and I traveled through a downpour that made the highway disappear in rivers and lakes of water. The walk to the Orange Line train at Oak Grove was through ankle deep puddles. The trek from the T station up Washington Street to the Opera House was accompanied by windblown rain--in our faces no matter which way we turned. But all was forgotten two bars into the first offering by Pink Martini. For almost two and a half hours we were wisked away by warm, inviting rumbas and sambas; carried back to a golden age of sultry and sassy Hollywood noir songs; and, with great humor, reminded about the Abba Dabba Honeymoon of the monkey and the chimp. Eugene was there as was the little Hunts tomato being urged to hang on.

The musical talent and diversity of each member of the ensemble was amazing. The percussionsts were a delight to the ear. Cello solos, violin solos, a crowd pleasing drum solo, wah-wah trumpet mutes, a slide trombone that made you long for a fondly remembered smokey jazz bar--all highlighted by the piano of Thomas Lauderdale and vocals of China Forbes. And did you know? The harpest, Maureen Love, is sister of Mike and cousin of Brian Wilson!

We traveled home with snipets of tunes playing in our heads, knowing that we had shared a very joyful musical experience...and the rain had stopped!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Every Last Cuckoo

If you’re looking for a fast paced, tightly plotted reading experience, perhaps you should pass on Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Maloy. If, however, you delight in meeting characters that draw you in to a very special time and place, then by all means join the cuckoos in the warblers’ nest.

From Publishers Weekly
When 75-year-old Sarah Lucas's husband, Charles, succumbs to an injury at the peak of a particularly brutal Vermont winter, her worst later-life fears of physical mishap are realized. In grief, Sarah's memories take her back to the Great Depression, when her parents generously opened their home to countless friends and relatives, and to her own regretted missteps as a parent. The chance to recreate the one experience and rectify the other arrives uninvited when a variety of lost souls--Sarah's own teenage granddaughter; an Israeli pacifist; a devastated young mother and child--seek shelter and solace in Sarah's too-empty home. The motley assortment of characters, many of whom have been touched by violence, deliver passionate apostrophes on peace and justice, and together Sarah and her boarders discover unseen beauty in the landscape, uncover hidden talents and develop a nurturing, healing community. Maloy's wordplay and startling nature imagery enchant….

A feverish Sarah grasping at memories…
Hot and cold, she set herself adrift, hoping to sleep again and fool whatever virus or toxin had invaded her. Soon she entered a suspended awareness in which she was conscious yet assailed by images her conscious mind did not produce. Where had she seen that piece of road, that sweet rise and bend that now unspoiled behind her eyes? The ocean, or perhaps a lake, lay to the right of it, a fringe of trees and a tucked cottage to the left. Up ahead, around a curve, a causeway crossed the wide water, but from where to where? Sarah tried to remember, but it was like snatching at milkweed fluff in the air. The very attempt sent it out of reach. This kind of thing happened more with age. Sarah was seventy-five. She had lived many thousands of days, so it was not surprising that scenes from an hour here or a moment there should surface at random. Her memories were beads jumbled loose in a box, unstrung. Everything—people, events, conversations—came and went so fast that only a fraction of the beads were ever stored at all. Few were whole, many cracked; most rolled away beneath pressing, present moments and were gone forever.

A description of friend Molly…
Molly was thought to be nearing ninety, a benevolent crone schooled in forestry, herbs, an gardens, a lifelong environmentalist, stooped and white-haired, with pink scalp showing at the crown of her large head. Her halo of white fluff inevitably brought to mind dandelion seeds, delicately spoked before the breezes carried them off. Molly had been big once, before the decades had shrunk her. Her broad knuckly hands were scarred and gnarled with use, but elsewhere her skin was heavy old silk, fine-lined and softly folded, bearing no spots or stains. She must have prized her rose white skin, the way she always covered it with long gauzy garments and broad hats in hot weather. It was her only outward beauty.

Thoughts on a gathering…
Everyone came, family and friends from Vermont and all over the country. Then they left. Sarah pictured the house swelling up with a deep intake of air, drawing tiny, weeping people in with its breath and then blowing them out mournfully to zigzag in the stinging cold. The inhalation held her aloft; the exhalation gave her some brief peace in its wake.

On grief…
Grief slipped away, only to attack from behind. It changed shape endlessly. It lacerated her, numbed her, stalked her, startled her, caught her by the throat. It deceived her eye with glimpses of Charles, her ear with the sound of his voice. She would turn and turn, expecting him, and find him gone. Again. Each time Sarah escaped her sorrow, forgetful amid other things, she lost him anew the instant she remembered he was gone.

Sarah, reflecting on aging…
Sarah took in the evidence of age not knowing whether to laugh or cry. How many girls and women she had been—she carried a multitude inside who shared only memory and character traits. I am a memory, she suddenly thought. And half the time I can’t tell what’s real from what I’ve made up. She slid her nightdress on and felt as if some other Sarah’s head emerged through the satin edging the neckline. As she buttoned the yoke, pushed up the loose sleeves, and brushed her teeth and hair, she had the odd feeling that some brand-new piece of her singular, shifting, multitudinous self had bumped lightly into place, moving the others making more sense of the whole—the irreducible, authentic Sarah, who weathered perpetual change and yet persisted. More would happen to her. She wasn’t finished yet.

A slice of daylight…
Tess helped her set the table. The late-day sun slanted in, lighting up the linens and place settings. Points of light caught on glasses, flatware, and ceramic glazes; the whole table glittered. Outside, fall color had burst wide open. Each year it was sudden, surprising, and new.

Sarah Lucas is a character who will live with me for some time. How often, of late, have I looked in the mirror and wondered just who that person staring back at me could be? How often, of late, have memories crowded in, demanding their space in my present? How often, of late, have I feared aging and inevitable separations? Sarah brings all of these fears and questions full circle, redefines her sense of self, and convinces that in the aftermath of inconsolable loss, life does go on…not the same, maybe not perfectly, but in some ways better.

The cover of Every Last Cuckoo beckoned, and I stepped inside the Vermont world of Sarah and Charles Lucas and emerged richer for having known them.

4.5/5 (General Fiction Scale)
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
277 pages

Dedication: For my mother, Elizabeth Hardy Maloy, and her mother, Bessie Watson Hardy, my first storytellers. For my aunt, Ann Foster Hardy, my inspiration for Sarah.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Past Secrets

Sometimes you just want to curl up with a book that doesn’t ask more of you than to turn the pages and to go along for the ride. Past Secrets by Cathy Kelly is one such book—the perfect reading companion for a few days out of the office while fighting a chest cold.

From Publishers Weekly:
Kelly's ninth novel, a cross-generational contemporary romance set in Ireland, is packed with high drama and the emotion to match. At 60, Christie Devlin and her peaceful home and garden are the heart of Dublin's picturesque Summer Street. But when a surprising nook of art teacher Christie's past is unearthed, the 30 fulfilling years Christie has spent with her husband, James, and their family threaten to unravel. Her neighbors, meanwhile, have their own crises to attend to: single mom Faye Reid is horrified when her daughter, Amber, drops out of college to travel with her musician boyfriend, prompting Faye to follow her to try to prevent her from making the same mistake Faye made in her youth. Wounded by an awkward adolescence and a cheating boyfriend, 30-year-old Maggie Maguire wishes she could stop letting her past hold her back from self-acceptance as she returns home to care for her ailing mother. If Kelly's sins are too many peripheral characters, an uneasy transition into Amber's teenage voice and meandering passages that could have been edited out, then they are easily forgiven. Kelly's evocation of mother-daughter relationships shines, and her handle on romance storytelling combined with her characters' feel-good, empowering evolutions make this a satisfying novel.

When James and Christie find their home…
And indeed, the house was beautifully proportioned even though it was sadly down at the heels, like a genteel lady who’d fallen on hard times but still polished the doorstep every morning even when she could barely afford milk for her tea.

Describing Claire’s miniature dachshunds, Tilly and Rocket…who had clearly been imperial majesties in a previous life.

Creating the image of Summer Street in readers’ minds…
From where they stood, the Devlin family could see the Summer Street Café with its aqua-and-white-striped awning and paintwork. On the pavement outside stood white bistro chairs and three small tables covered with flowered sea blue tablecloths that looked as if they’d been transported from a Sorrento balcony.

On the same side of the street as the café, there were terraced houses; then a couple of slender detached houses squeezed in; eight small railway cottages, their classic fascia boards traced with delicate carvings; then a series of redbricks including theirs; five 1930s bungalows and, finally, a handful of one-story-over-basements. The other side of Summer Street was lines with more terraced houses and cottages, along with a tiny part: two neatly kept acres with a colonnaded bandstand, an old railway pavilion and a miniscule fountain much loved by the pigeons that couldn’t bear to poop anywhere else.

The maple trees that lined the street were flanked by colorful border plants, while even the doors to the dizzying variety of houses were painted strong bright shades: cerulean blues, poinsettia scarlets, honeyed ambers.

Maggie Maguire and her mother Una visit a local councilwoman’s office…
The waiting room and the office reminded Maggie of an old shop where someone had ripped out the shelf units, painted the walls a sickly yellow and stuffed political pamphlets and posters everywhere, claiming better futures, better Irelands, better everything. “Pity they don’t have better chairs,” muttered Una as she shifted to get comfortable on the plastic chair.

Maggie, a librarian, remembering a favorite story her father told her…
Maggie loved the silence of the library. Ever since she’d been a child, and her father had explained why libraries were special places where you had to whisper, she’d loved the fact that the only sounds to be heard were muted whispers and the gentle rustling of pages.
“It’s quiet because all the books are sitting on the shelves, snoozing quietly as they wait to be picked,” Dad had said, “because being picked by you is the start of an amazing adventure for them.”

A couple of years ago, I read and enjoyed Just Between Us by Cathy Kelly. Since then, I have tried Always and Forever and Best of Friends, both of which sit languishing on the “Haven’t Finished Yet” pile. I had started Past Secrets about a week ago; and while I was enjoying the descriptive interior and garden passages, the book hadn’t grabbed me and was in peril of joining its two counterparts in the HFY pile. However, when one has taken to one’s favorite chair and surrounded oneself with fleecy blanket, Puffs Plus, Hall’s Lemon Honey throat lozenges, and a never ending supply of Vitamin water, one’s reading enjoyment level can alter to suit the occasion. The story of the women of Summer Street, their past and present secrets, and their coming full circle to acceptance and resolution fit the bill perfectly as a truly comforting read.

3/5 (General Fiction Scale)
Downtown Press 2006
484 pages

Dedication: None

Epigraph: None

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ride a Painted Pony

The Barnes & Noble romance readers group I belong to (which has been meeting for over ten years) meets the first Monday of the month. So, by default, my first book of the New Year is a romance. The January 2008 selection was Ride a Painted Pony by Kathleen Eagle.

Kathleen Eagle is an author who has been on my "must read one of her books" list for some time; and I, liking a little angst with my romance, was looking forward to Ride a Painted Pony as described on the book cover:

Nick Red Shield swerved his pickup and empty horse trailer to avoid her, but neither he nor the mysterious Lauren Davis could avoid the collision of their lives. Though Nick's loner instincts kick into high gear, Lauren's vulnerability tugs at him in ways he'd thought long since shut down. More comfortable with horses than people, he's drawn to the secretive runaway. But even in the safe haven of his South Dakota ranch, among the magnificent painted horses of Western legend, the danger shadowing Lauren's life will compel her to new acts of desperation to save her young son and force Nick to confront demons bent on destroying them both.

Despite its promise, Ride a Painted Pony was a disappointment. Serious problems were handled at a very superficial level, leaving the characters shallow and their conflicts lacking substance. I realize that true-to-genre romance novels will not deal with social issues in any way that would be considered disturbing for readers, and that was a major problem for this book. Lauren has been driven from her home by an abusive partner who keeps her from her young son; Nick is dealing with demons constantly reminding him of a tragic accident. Both hero and heroine kept falling into the plot holes necessitated by the genre commandment: Thou shalt not disturb.

A bit of a disappointing start to this year of reading.

Rating: 2.5/5 (Romance Scale)
Mira 2006
388 pages

Dedication: For the Prairie Writers Guild--Pam, Sandy, Mary, Judy and Kathy. Vive PWG! And to honor the memory of Little Ted

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A New Year

We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives...not looking for flaws, but for potential. ~Ellen Goodman