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.