Monday, December 8, 2014

Orphan Train - Christina Baker Kline

These days, I seem to be picking novels that have two parallel stories going that build to tell a more complete tale and explore common themes. Christina Baker Kline's novel is one more of that ilk. In it, her modern day protagonist, Molly completes a school oral history project in which she must ask an interviewee questions about their lives and change. What did you choose to take with you? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain? Deep questions, all.

Molly is a teenager that will be aging out the foster care system at the end of her high school experience. She has been shuttled about from one foster family to the next over the years. She travels light. She guards her emotions and puts on a Goth facade that isolates her from those around her at school. She tries to never get too close to anyone, as she never knows when she'll be pulled from one family and school to be plunked down in another.

Vivian Daly is an elderly retiree, living in her vacation home in nearby Bar Harbor, Maine. Before retiring, she lead a life as a successful department store owner in Minnesota and has decided that her attic must be cleaned out, but can't manage the heavy work it takes to jockey boxes and cartons, filled with nearly a century of life's artifacts and detritus.

Molly, gets in trouble with the local library when she attempts to steal a book. In order to avoid legal hassles with the foster care system, she signs on to do community service hours and gets hooked up with Vivian Daly. She will volunteer to help Mrs. Daly clean out her attic and thus begins a wonderful friendship. Both characters are guarded about being too open with each other, but as time goes by and the community service hours mount up, Molly and Vivian find common bonds that will help each of them ponder the losses they've had in life, the important things and values that they have carried with them over time, and the need for true emotional connection with others.

I was talking with a friend about this book. She was saying that the local middle school teachers were looking at this book as a read for their students. We both thought it more appropriate for high school. The reading level is not difficult, but the content and topic seemed a bit advanced for young kids. This book deals with immigration and the prejudices that were common during the early 1900's towards immigrants, family losses, abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, rape, the orphan trains that ran from eastern urban centers to midwest towns that brokered 'homes' for young street children and orphans, modern day foster care and the problems with oversight, building emotional relationships and mending those that are 'broken' emotionally. Deep topics, all. I honestly thought discussion of the topics would be more fruitful with older kids. The issues of authority and system failure when abuse and rape are involved would be valuable discussions for teens to explore these days, given what we're seeing in the press.  The issues of immigration and how we deal with the poor and needy could also be valuable discussions with older kids, but could be too 'gritty' for middle school aged kids (IMHO). The historical topic of the orphan trains is pretty complex too and worthy of further research to find out the true stories of thousands of children who were shuttled out of the cities in a Progressive Era social experiment that, while well-meaning, was poorly monitored in many cases. So ... this novel has a lot of 'meat' for a simple story.

The themes don't bog down the story, but they're there. Kline moves her novel along really well, jumping between modern day Maine and Depression-era Minnesota. The reader learns of the tough start to Vivian Daly's life as she is shifted from one foster family to the next during her early teen years. Molly, in finding out certain details of Vivian's life sees the perfect interviewee for her history project and in the process must confront those questions in her own life. All ends well in this book, but one is left to wonder about those thousands of kids and their real life stories ...

A fast and thought-provoking read ...

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Telling - Jo Baker

I love  it when I find a new author, of whom I know nothing. I love it even more when that author has a body of work that I can jump right into. Jo Baker's work was unkown to me until I came upon her novel called Longbourn. Placing the story at the Pemberly estate and wrapping the characters of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice into a different spin was the perfect tease for me. I do love my Jane Austen, you see. But wait! This Jo Baker has written other things!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saturday Snapshot - Hello Snow!

Hope everyone's Thanksgiving was wonderful ... ours was ushered in on a million and a half snowflakes! By Thanksgiving morning, there was about a foot of new snow to make everything lovely! Thankfully, the power remained on so that I could roast the Thanksgiving turkey and make the pie! Our daughter, Sara got all excited after dinner and bundled up to go with her Dad to cut ' the Christmas branch' for her tiny Boston apartment! Such excitement!

Too bad the whole family didn't get in on this photo ... could have been the holiday card! Oh well. Happy Christmas from the grey cottage on the hill !!! Now, let's have some eggnog!

shared with other photographers at Saturday Snapshot ... check out the other contributions!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things - Alice Hoffman

I love this book, but I love just about everything that I've read by Alice Hoffman. She has such a wonderful way of building these magical worlds in which she places her characters. In this book, it's the gritty world of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. This is a place of hard working immigrant factory workers who grind out an existence in the sweatshops of Manhattan and then spend their bits of free time escaping to the seaside attractions of Brooklyn's Coney Island. What makes it 'otherworldy' is that she places us smack dab in the center of this odd little museum of curiosities. One can practically hear the carnie music from Coney Island in the background, as we move with Coralie through the rooms of her home, watching the odd cast of characters that her father has hired to house the Museum of Extraordinary Things. Her father's odd assortment of natural wonders, geological artifacts,  and freakish live specimens feed the public's ghoulish hunger for leering at the deformed and different. For a while, the museum is a success and life for Coralie is comfortable and sheltered.

As Coralie grows older, though, her father's fortunes are slipping lower in status, she learns more and more of his dark side and willingness to compromise her, his own daughter, in order to survive in the business of side-show entertainment. The area along the seashore is being developed and larger, glitzier attractions are being promoted. Coralie's father is faced with finding more extravagant and outlandish acts to draw the public and Coralie becomes fodder for her father's warped imagination. She is pressed into service as 'the living mermaid' in the large water tank at the museum and when that act becomes 'old' is forced to swim about naked to satisfy leering gawkers' prurient urges, safe behind glass, but violated, nonetheless. In rebellion, she comes into her own, growing more emotionally independent and hungry for a true human connection in the world away from the museum and her forced life of exhibition. Her dream life becomes so active and vivid that it contributes to the eerie atmosphere that Hoffman creates around Coralie's bizarre existence.

Running parallel to the life of the girl in the Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of Ezekial, a young Orthodox Jewish boy, who grows away from his immigrant father. Factory work is just too mind and body-numbing for young Ezekial. He turns his back on his Jewish life and his father and runs the streets of Manhattan. He finds different ways to survive and eke out a living,  first acting as the eyes and ears for a well-known Jewish shyster. When Ezekial comes across a photographer along the waterfront in Brooklyn, he becomes so enamored of the camera work being done by the artist that he follows him around until he is allowed to apprentice. Learning the art of photography opens new doors for Ezekial and he becomes a photography stringer for the local papers, providing news photos of all the grittiest of happenings in the city.

The worlds of Coralie and Ezekial spin closer and closer throughout the novel, and one waits for them to collide, as they will be so very good for each other ... but how will they finally meet and come together? Sigh ... it is a challenge not to throw the rest of the day aside to race toward the end of the story, but I am enjoying the magic of the setting so much that I won't do that. Instead, I'll savor this story a couple chapters at a time and pray that these two poor souls will meet and save each other from miserable and lonely lives. For all the grit and seediness in the lives of these two protagonists, there is a conscious search for truth and beauty and love that they both hope for and dream of - and as a reader, I am rooting for them all the way.

Thanks, Alice Hoffman for another wonderful novel!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Confession - John Grisham

The wheels of justice grind so damn slow. And yet, if one were a condemned man living the nightmare of Death Row, all that time might just be the greatest gift given. THAT IS ... if the system weren't so darn slanted. In this particular look at the legal system and the society around hot issues, John Grisham takes on the death penalty and the state of Texas. The story revolves around a missing person case, an assumed murder, a railroaded young man (who happens to be black), a heavily coerced confession of rape and murder, a zealous defense lawyer with a real crazy streak, a forthright Luthern preacher, an ex-con with a strange onset of conscience, and the police, politicians, and legal system in which all of them are embroiled.

This was a hard book to put down, as there is so much going on in it - from the frenzied last minute appeal process to the wranglings and avoidance of the appellate judges and lawyers- from the emotional rollercoaster that the families of the presumed victim and the presumed killer ride before the death sentence date arrives to the tense and delicate discussions between preacher and confessor - from the circus of the media trucks to the smoky destruction of black and white churches in the town where the trial has been based. The pages fly by.

There have been books that I've read that have made me think deeply on my feelings about capital punishment. Dead Man Walking, In Cold Blood, and Helter Skelter come to mind immediately. Each time, I've had such strong reactions that it surprised me. This book also caused soul searching. The legal system is portrayed as broken, manipulated in the worst way, politicized for the sake of careers, and gawked at by media and public alike. Victims and accused become commodities to be exploited, played for digital bits and left aside when a bigger story comes along. Truth is a thing that is beside the point.

Somewhere in that muddled mess is the humanity behind the concept of justice and truth. It comes to the fore in the character of Rev. Keith Schroeder, a man placed in the position of knowing the truth and having the chance to right a wrong. Righting that wrong, though,takes him on a strange trip into the heart of the legal wranglings around the death sentence of a young man who has sat and watched the wheels of justice grind away and waited for too long.

Another good read from John Grisham ...

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Discovery of Witches/Audio Version - Deborah Harkness

Something light and fluffy. That was what I wished for after the last read, so what better than a romance? That's exactly what one gets when one cracks the pages (or plops the CD into the player) of the first in the Deborah Harkness 'All Souls Trilogy' series. This book spent time on the NYT best seller list when it came out. I'd seen the title on the library shelves, but always shied away. I was thinking that it would probably be taking a page from the 'Twilight' trend of YA chick lit. 

I was right. I listened to this in the kitchen, as I performed the nightly dinner ritual. At times, I laughed at how cliche some of the writing becomes. Matthew Clairmont is always ruggedly handsome, with just the right amount of chest showing, knows everything about wine (woman's fave beverage, right?), has the appropriate arrogant attitude and physical strength to throw his woman over his shoulder when she shows any sign of fainting or fatigue. Oh, by the way. he's a vampire. 

Diana Bishop is a brilliant history scholar who is deep into research on the mysteries of alchemy. Working at Oxford University, the books are flying off the shelves as she prepares for a scholarly conference at which she is supposed to 'present'. Things get muddled when she discovers a long hidden text that has been lost to civilization for ages in the depths of the Bodelian Library. The moment she touches the book strange forces are unleashed within her. Yup, she's a witch who has been in denial of her powers and the book brings on a power surge, so to speak. 

The book escalates from that one incident to unleash a history of vampires, demons, and witches that becomes a name-dropper's paradise. The novel revolves around the steamy relationship that develops between Matthew and Diana and references to actual historical events in history that become linked to the premise that vampires, demons and witches have lived with we, mortals for ages and have been at the center of many of the great advances of civilization. Matthew and Diana become a parallel to Romeo and Juliet, forbidden lovers, a lesson in race relations, so to speak. Vampires and witches don't mix and they will have to fight old taboos to maintain their relationship. Oh, and there's the matter of that book Diana discovered that started the whole mess! It's front and center to the story - a convoluted tale that will take A LOT of telling. Hence, the series. 

This is definitely a light and fluffy series - a combination of Outlander meets Harry Potter meets Twilight - a treat for young romance fans ( horny women, is what my husband said, as he passed through the kitchen last week). Harkness builds her story on strong description. She has an obsession with telling her readers the fashion details of both Matthew and Diana, using dialogue over endless cups of tea and glasses of wine as a platform for moving the plot along, and placing the character of Matthew Clairmont at the crucial points in history with very famous historical figures. It gets a bit annoying at times, but I suppose that was half the fun of writing a story such as this! The tales of witches, demons, and vampires are so mythic that they cross over all cultures and civilizations, cutting a  ... well, romantic swath. 

I finished the audio version over the weekend - probably won't continue on with the series until I need another light read. Don't get me wrong here. There IS a place in everyone's reading life for lighter, undemanding reads that are pure escapism. Harkness has cashed in on a profitable niche with her 'All Souls Trilogy'. More power to her!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

First Snow - Saturday Snapshot

The change of seasons is coming on here in my rural backwater. This week brought us the first snow.

The early morning view from the kitchen was all pink and grey and white ... a lovely start to the day.

The Halloween pumpkins looked positively garish under their snowy caps ... poor Jacks. They'll soon be food for the chipmunks and squirrels.

The terrace bricks had nice snowy borders ... a strange phenomenon that has me wondering.

Little Bee was content to sit in the sun and let the rays shine pink through his ears ... and wrestle with a boot lace.

... shared with others at Melinda Ott's weekly photo share called Saturday Snapshot ...