Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Tumblng Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay

Sometimes you have to read a book that is just plain fun. Juliette Fay's The Tumbling Turner Sisters is just that kind of a book. Set in Johnson City, New York the novel journals the 4 Turner sisters as they take their place in a long list of vaudevillian performers at the end of the first decade of the 20th century.

Frank Turner, father to the sisters and husband to Ethel, gets into a brawl at a bar and injures his hand so badly that he cannot work as a boot stitcher. Ethel decides that in order to make some money for the family the sister will become a scantily clad vaudeville acrobatic act. Kit, Gert, Winnie, and Nell are a bit reluctant but rise to the occasion. Signed by Mortie Birnbaum the act hits the road to second rate theatres and opera houses of northern New York, including Sackets Harbor, Clayton, Oneonta, Geneva and Lyons. Told through the eyes and words of Gert and Winnie, the reader gains a real insight into the life of a performer and the history and society of 1919.

Nell is a widow whose husband fought in the Great War, survived the battles, but before he arrived home fell victim to the Spanish flu. Nell also has a baby, Harry. Gert and Winnie bring different perspectives to the novel. Gert is outgoing and flirtatious; Winnie is a bookworm who wants to go to college and become a doctor. Both get a taste of a bit of romance on tour. Secondary characters add to the drama and frivolity, even the act of two orangutans and a couple of parrots. Tip, the tap dancer, and Joe and his sister, Lucy play major roles in the lives of the young women.  

The historical events provide a sense of the times: the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire, prohibition, the influence of Birth of a Nation and the Klu Klux Klan, and the anti-immigrant feelings are major themes. Fay provides the reader with her historical resources including the memories and stories of her great grandfather who was a vaudeville dancer. 

Being set in upstate New York added to the appeal of the book. The places were familiar and could be easily pictured. Even in the epilogue, the mention of Tower Court and Wellesley College brought back fond memories. This was an enjoyable book and one that could be read in a fairly quick time frame. There are laughs and some tears, cheers and boos, relationships that grow and those that are jolted. A book to slip in between longer and more contemplative tomes.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeeper's Wife has been on my "want to read" list since its publication in 2007, just 10 years ago! It moved up the list to "currently reading" spurred by a Kindle Deal of the Day ($1.99) and the release of the movie based on it. I am glad that I did wait to read it until we had visited Poland. Having a picture of Warsaw in my mind allowed me to visualize the landmarks that were described and referenced. 

The zookeeper in this nonfiction book is Jan Żabiński and his wife is Antonina. The zoo in Warsaw was well renowned before World War II and Żabiński a well respected curator and as the Nazis moved in, Lutz Heck, the zoologist of the Berlin zoo, started pillaging the Warsaw zoo. He stole valuable animals and what he didn't steal he killed. The discovery of Kasia, a favorite elephant, dead in her enclosure was startling and a shocking beginning to the horrors that would follow. But the Żabińskis had a different plan in mind. Jan was also a professor in the underground and secret Warsaw University. With access to the Warsaw ghetto he was able to smuggle Jews out and hide them in the secret passages, cages, and tunnels of the zoo. Perhaps he was not suspected as carrying out these heroic deeds due to the fact that he was able to turn the zoo into a pig farm.

Once Jan got the "guests" to the zoo, it was then up to Antonina to take care of them. She never considered herself a heroine, but because of her efforts in hiding and feeding them she managed to save over 300 Jewish men, women, and children. She put herself and her children in danger as the Nazis became intent upon arresting those who were suspected of hiding the Jews. One of the clever ruses was when Antonina played an Offenbach tune with the refrain “Go, go, go to Crete” it was code to her “guests” to hide as Germans were around. To complicate matters Antonina was pregnant and required bed rest before giving birth to her daughter Teresa. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Jan goes off to fight with the resistance and Antonina takes the children to a small village to avoid the decimation of the city. She desperately tries everything in her power to learn of Jan's fate. And when she does, it is not good. He was shot through the neck, but miraculously recovers.

After the war they reopened the zoo, but under the Communist regime it was just not the same. The theme of kindness, caring, and compassion resonates through this book. It is so hard to imagine what it must have been like to live during this horrific genocide. Even walking the streets of Warsaw today, the destruction is unimaginable. If there is such an entity as an enjoyable book about the Holocaust, this would be one. The spirit of the Żabińskis is so deep and caring that sets a high bar for us all. Would we have been able to accomplish what they did and with the courage that they showed. I am intrigued to read more about the Żabińskis. Ackerman relied on Antonina's diary for a lot of the book. That would be well worth searching out and reading a first hand account. It will be interesting to see how the movie portrays their lives, the Nazis, and the ghetto. I have a feeling  I may be disappointed after reading the book.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies explores and tries to explain the marriage of Lotto (Lancelot) and Mathilde. The novel is told from two perspectives his (Fates) and hers (Furies). As can be expected in many situations the perspectives are totally at odds with each other. The novel spent the better part of a year (2015-2016) at the top of the NYT Best Sellers List. It was proclaimed the most favorite book of President Obama in 2015.

Lotto's story is first. He is the product of a very wealthy Floridian couple who comes across as privileged, vain, and a more than confident. His father dies very suddenly and he and his sister Rachel are raised by his mother, Antoinette and his Aunt Sally. During his high school years he dabbled in drugs with his friend Chollie and Chollie's twin sister Gwennie. Sent away to a prep school he is separated from that life. He meets Mathilde at Vassar and the two marry right before their graduation. The remainder of the Fates section details that relationship as they struggle to make ends meet while Lotto struggles with his career as a playwright. Mathilde does everything in her power to help him and support him.

Mathilde's story is told in the Furies section. The reader learns that her name is really Aurelie and that she was born in France. After a tragic accident, she is sent to live with a grandmother and then an uncle. Although well provided for, she is virtually on her own in a large mansion. The chauffeur is her only friend and as she leaves high school she strikes out on her own. In order to pay her tuition, she enters into a "money for sex" masochistic relationship with Ariel, a NYC art dealer. She is a survivor and a conniver, for sure. The reader also learns of Mathilde's relationship with Antoinette and Chollie. All is not is as it seemed. 
Lauren Groff signing my copy of Fates and Furies

Central to the novel is the theme of marriage and the secrets that it inevitably hides. I really believe that Lotto and Mathilde loved each other. It is a passionate relationship, but one filled with anxiety. Groff's strength is in her character development. She switches narrators but keeps their voices clearly distinct. The crafting of sentences is amazing and, again, distinctively different in each part of the novel. With all that said and with all the glowing reviews, and a period of reflection since I finished the book, I am still vacillating between liking it and not. From reading reviews, readers either hate it or love it. I guess I just didn't have those strong feelings either way. Each reader needs to judge for him or herself.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

I was intrigued by the description of this book when I first read about it in Bookmarks magazine. I chose it for a read for our February book club and it was met with a somewhat lukewarm reception - that is until people read it. 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was one of the best books that I have read in the last few years. It has a bit of everything one could want in a book - history, mystery, art, and some interesting relationships. Taking place on 3 continents and in 3 eras of history, the novel weaves its tale through the painting, "At the Edge of a Wood." Smith gives the reader a detailed description of the painting before the narrative begins and he relates the story of Sara and her family. Barent, her husband is a painter in 17th century Holland. They have a young daughter and live what seems to be a bucolic life. And then, suddenly Kathrijn, their daughter dies of the plague and their world is turned upside down. 

Fast forward to 1957 and the apartment of Rachel and Marty DeGroot, a wealthy couple hosting a charity dinner after which Marty discovers that the painting "At the Edge of a Wood" that has hung above their bed has been replaced by a meticulously crafted forgery.  The forger is a young graduate student, Ellie Shipley,  whose specialty is women painters of the Dutch Golden age. DeGroot becomes obsessed with finding the original painting that has been in his family for 350 years and eventually he becomes acquainted with Ellie. As the story builds to a climax, after another 40 years, the original and forgery are side by side in an Australian art gallery where Ellie has held a prominent position. 

Concurrently, the reader learns of the hardships of Sara and her quest to be admitted to the Guild of St. Luke, the painters union in Holland. She is a strong woman and has had to overcome the hardship of both personal and monetary loss. Her story parallels the struggle of Ellie and so many women who were never really given the credit for their talents or intellect. 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is an incredibly fulfilling read. It is full of twists and turns, wonderful character development, and themes. Smith deftly handles time and place from 1631 to 2000, from Holland to New York City, and Australian as he focuses on a painter, an art enthusiast, and a forger. This is not to be missed if a reader yearns to read a book that he or she does not want to end.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Poland by James Michener

Nearly a year after I started Poland by James Michener, the book has been finished. I began the book in anticipation of our trip to Poland in June of 2016. The tome was over 650 pages and really needed a very extended period of free time to be able to read it in a timely fashion. That is something that just doesn't happen in my life. Between book club books and client work, I had to read the book in piecemeal style. I have always enjoyed Michener's books, but this one was tedious and I probably would have not finished it if I weren't so stubborn about reading to the end of a book that I have started.

The novel centers around the story of three families of Buk, Bukowski and Lubonski from the very early history of the land around 1240 through the present time - that when Michener wrote it - 1983. They represent 3 social groups from peasant to noble to magnate. It begins in 1981 with a meeting of the minister of agriculture and the leaders of the farmers. It is during the Communist rule and centers around the possibility of forming a union. It is reminiscent of the beginning of the Solidarity movement. From that introduction to the families the reader is taken back to the time of the invasion of the Mongols into Poland.

It would take nearly as many pages to describe all the action of Poland as the length of the book itself. One of the most ponderous effects of the novel was the superabundance of names. It was difficult to keep them all straight. I did find that the pace of the novel picked up as we got to the 1800s. The story of the Golden Freedom, the partitioning of Poland, the rise of the Nazis and the horror of the Holocaust were much more accessible than earlier chapter. To this reader the in depth description of battles, armies, and armor is tedious and "skip-worthy." However, Michener does weave certain themes through the book. Poland has always been a liberal player in the history of eastern Europe and has been the target of numerous Russian invasions. Yet, through it all, the Poles have managed to survive and as we are witnessing today, almost thriving. Warsaw is a growing and vibrant world capital today, proving Michener's points. 

For anyone with the time and interest in this country, this is would be a great read. It begs to be read in less time than a year, but it did give insight and perspective into the history of a beautiful country that is a gem for anyone to visit.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, the award winning author of Olive Kitteridge, brings a new persona to the world of contemplative literature. The reader is introduced to Lucy Barton as she relates the story of her stay of nine weeks in a hospital in New York City. She is suffering from malaise after an appendectomy. Lucy has two daughters and a husband who is horribly "hospital phobic."

Midway through her hospital stay her mother arrives from Illinois at the request of Lucy's husband. During her brief 5 day stay with her daughter from whom she has been estranged, stories are exchanged about the family, neighbors, and other acquaintances. The time her mother spends with her affords the reader an window into Lucy's life and, most especially, her relationship with her mother. Lucy is from a very poor and underprivileged background. Her family, consisting of her parents and brother and sister, live in an uncle's garage until the uncle died and they could move into the house. Abusive actions were not uncommon in the household that was void of books and television, and Lucy managed to leave and really not look back. 

Being set in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic shows how Lucy is compassionate and caring. We see her grief at the death of a friend and at breakup of her marriage. She struggles to find meaning in all phases of her life. But most of all, it's the relationship with her mother that is the crux of the story. Lucy has no recollection of her mother ever kissing her, nor has she ever heard her say "I love you." It is painful, but rings true, because that can be life. 

The novel is really a book within a book and to describe its intricacies would be difficult as well as simplistic. The writing is profound. What is not written, the silences are just as powerful. My Name is Lucy Barton is a novel of darkness and light - just like the light of the Chrysler Building that shines through Lucy's hospital window. Strout achieves literary success not with plot twists, but with characters that tug at your heart and emotions. Don't miss this small but powerful and poignant book.






Sunday, November 20, 2016

bonjour kale by Kristen Beddard

I was a bit skeptical when our book club chose a book about kale for its December read. I am not fond of kale, probably dating back to the summer when our CSA in Watertown only had kale to distribute because of  a horrible growing season. The book was available in the Kindle edition for a mere $1.99, so why not?

bonjour kale is a memoir, a collection of recipes, and a travelogue of Paris. Kristen Beddard, a native Pittsburgher, after college settles in New York City where she meets her husband, Phillip. Soon after they marry they move to Paris for his job. She is a "trailing spouse" and for the greater part of a year feels isolated and like a fish out of water. She describes their quest for an apartment, her many attempts to learn the language, and trying to make friends, as well as trying to fit into the culture. 

But the most disconcerting matter of the move was the absence of kale in the Parisian markets. Kristen's background was rooted in healthy foods and eating. One of the mainstays of her diet was kale and it didn't exist in France. And so began the Kale Project. It was her attempt to introduce the vegetable into the cuisine of the French. One of the issues she discovered was lack of a French word for the greens. In her quest she really couldn't even ask for it and have the market proprietors understand her. As she eventually allies herself with some farmers, the memoir details her mission to bring kale from farm to table. She ends each chapter with a recipe or two, which I can say that I will not try. I admire her tenacity in this undertaking, but I still can't bring myself to cook this green.

This was an easy, fun,  and interesting read. I enjoyed the smattering of French words, the descriptions of the markets, and the references to Pittsburgh. If anyone really likes kale, you would absolutely love this book.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On My Own by Diane Rehm

Diane Rehm certainly needs no introduction to NPR listeners. She had hosted a radio show since 1979 on WAMU. Her shows are political, social,  and powerful. In 2014 John, her husband of 54 years, passed away after starving himself to death. It was a passing of his choice to end his suffering from Parkinson's disease. 

On My Own recounts the year following John's death as Rehm tries to come to terms with having watched her husband suffer and her widowhood. The memoir is touching and poignant. You can almost hear her raspy voice telling her story. She describes how difficult it is to face the holidays without him and the loneliness of their condo. She confronts her guilt in not being able to take care of John in the final stages of his illness, as well as being able to help him carry out his wishes to die. Her comfort comes from Maxie, her dog. 

But more than anything On My Own, is a treatise that speaks loudly for death with dignity. She compares John's prolonged suffering with other friends, Roger Mudd's wife and best friend Janet Dixon,  who died suddenly. She writes“I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death. He was of rational mind, with no hope of recovery, knowing full well that the only way ahead was a slow downward slide, moving toward more incapacity and even greater indignity." 

Rehm indicates in her book that she will retire after the presidential election. It is almost certain that she will be using her voice to speak out for the right to die. On My Own is a short easy read, but it really is not easy to read. She will speak 14 November 2016 at the Pittsburgh Ten Literary Nights Lectures and it will be interesting to see what she will say about her book, life with John, and life after The Diane Rehm Show.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Hill Towns by Anne Rivers Siddons

What a cast of characters Siddons has created in this novel. Although they are few, they are remarkable and polarizing as to whether you like them or despise them.

Cat Compton lost her parents when she was a five year old girl and was raised by her grandparents in a small college hill town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She finishes, college, marries a professor, Joe Gaillard,  at the college and has a daughter, who is born blind. The trauma of the death of her parents and the uncertainty of the "outside" world contributes to her agoraphobia. She has such a difficult time coming down from the mountain, that she undergoes a very rigorous course of psychotherapy. When one of Joe's former students announces that he will be married in Italy, it is a chance for Cat to muster up some courage and accompany her husband to Rome for the wedding. 

Joe, like so many of us, arrives at his destination without luggage. He scrambles for some clothing before he and Cat are off to a pre-wedding party at the palatial home of Ada and Sam Forrest. There are the young couple Colin and Maria and the wild Yolanda, a TV personality. Sam is a famous painter and Ada will do whatever she needs to do to push his career, including pushing him to begin painting Cat. 

After a couple of medical emergencies as they traverse Italy from Rome to Venice to Tuscany, energies, emotions, and hormones become unleashed. Is all that happens attributed to the change in Cat, the machinations of Ada, the vulnerability of Joe, the licentious actions of Sam, or the unrestrained influence of Yolanda? When they reach Sienna, the plot thickens as the portrait of Cat is unveiled. 

I really wanted to like this book. It was very favorably reviewed. It was well written, a wonderful travelogue through Italy. However, I did find the characters, although well developed, a bit unappealing. I wanted to shake them and say what are you doing? The novel is a quick read and perfect for a diversion from the spy, mystery books I usually like. Siddons attempts to fill her characters with all that is part of human nature and, as Yolanda succinctly puts it, "Americans behave badly in Italy."


Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The underground railroad was an incredible attempt in our nation's history to help those, who were oppressed and subjugated to horrendous persecution, by providing a secret route of safe homes to freedom. It has been a fascinating subject to me since my elementary school days and then to my college years when historic markers seemed to abound with the sites associated with abolition of slavery. It was even rumored that the Rocky Spring Church,  in which graveyard Sarah Wilson was buried, was a station on the railroad.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and Colson Whitehead has taken the The Underground Railroad to a new dimension. With homage paid to Gulliver's Travels and 100 Years of Solitude, Whitehead creates a system of tracks, trains, and tunnels that transport slaves to freedom. The reader must suspend the historical notion for the magic realism that details the coming and going of locomotives and trains that can be accessed through trap doors.


Cora lives on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother was a runaway slave and abandoned her when she was young. As a witness to and victim of the owner's brutality, she agrees to an escape plan with Caesar, a young man who gains her trust. The ensuing journey north takes her to diverse stations and states. From a surrealistic environment of "freedom" in South Carolina to hiding in an attic, ala Anne Frank, in North Carolina, the reader routes for her to make it to the north and real freedom. All the while she is chased by the wicked slave catcher, Ridgeway whose intensity in pursuit rivals that of Javret from Les Miserables.

Throughout the novel Whitehead moves beyond the narrative to the unstated comparison of man's journey for freedom and the savage cruelty experienced on the way- the Nazis and the police brutality that the world has witnessed in the last years.  It is a shocking and complacency shaking work that begs to be reread for the sheer poetry of Whitehead's words. On 24 October 2016, it was, indeed, a thrill to hear Colson Whitehead read from and discuss this book and his inspiration for writing it.