The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

When Kristin Hannah’s new book The Great Alone became available there was a bit of a buzz around the office. When I received notice that my electronic hold was available the timing couldn’t have been more perfect: we were scheduled to leave on vacation the following day.

Once the pilot gave the okay to power on electronic devices, I pulled out my new iPad with a relish of anticipation only to be quickly disappointed that I’d failed to download the book.

Lesson number one: You do not need to use Wi-Fi to read or listen to e-books or e-audio books, but you do need to download them to your device. I’d only gone as far as checking the book out; consequently it was unavailable on my flight down. However, I was pleased to access it on my return flight. Being on vacation is the best place to start a book. I sat on my sister’s patio on a balmy Tucson morning and entered into the uncharted pages of The Great Alone.

Alaska and Maine have long-held a fascination for me. They are destinations where I imagine adventures with unique grandeur and scenic marine swept beauty. Someday I hope to travel to these geographic east/west opposites. So far my experience has been literary. I have been to Maine in Christina Baker-Kline’s A Piece of the World and to the Alaskan Yukon through Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World.

Hannah’s book engaged me from the get go. Set in Seattle in 1974, the story quickly moves into the wild outskirts of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Ernt Allbright is a Vietnam vet and POW survivor who receives his ticket out of Seattle via an unexpected inheritance of land from a deceased army buddy. The family packs their meager belongings into a VW van and head up the ALCAN Highway.

Told through the eyes of Lenora (Leni), Hannah fleshes out a dysfunctional family bound by fear and devotion. I sympathized with Leni who had to move from school to school, starting over far too many times. The peacekeeper of her family, she maintains a protective and loving relationship with her mom and a skewed but respectful relationship with her unpredictable father.

Situating the novel in a rugged and remote outpost of Alaska during the post-Vietnam era creates a tension that slowly builds in the pit of your stomach and continues to grow. Hoping to escape reoccurring nightmares and failed attempts to keep work after returning from Vietnam, Leni’s father promises things will be different this time around. Secrets, shame, and disillusion begin to breed contempt, however.

For me, it is difficult to understand how a woman can allow a man to beat her in one moment and then take him back in the next, but that’s what Leni’s mother Cora does. She makes excuses explaining that her father is sick; mother and daughter form an alliance and learn to speak the language of silence. Leni’s mom chose her man over a stable home and parents who loved her — Leni doesn’t have a choice.

The family arrives at the start of summer where deceptive sunshine floods into the late hours and food is in abundance. Had it not been for the intervention of wise and caring neighbors who extended their kindness by helping the Allbrights prepare, the family would never have survived their first Alaskan winter. The hopeful enthusiasm for a fresh start begins to fade as the long dark days of an Alaskan winter creep in. The promise Leni’s dad made to stop drinking and beating his wife slowing dissipates, replaced by violence and vengeance fueled by whiskey and a growing paranoia.

The stage is set for disaster and the plot thickens. Leni’s father’s jealousy is aimed at the father of her best friend Matthew. Leni and her mother become adept survivalists not only in the Alaskan Wilderness, but in their own home.

At the time of this writing there are 26 holds on the book, but the list was longer when I was reading the electronic version. At first I couldn’t put the book down, but I was forced to in order to meet the deadline for my book club. Then, about two-thirds of the way through The Great Alone the story took a turn and went from a page turner to a ‘I can finish this later’ type of book. I was not ready to completely give up, however, and was fortunate enough to snag a large print copy to continue reading.

I grew up in the Northwest and in the era depicted in Hannah’s story I would’ve been about the same age as Leni, but my life looked much different. Even though I had my own family drama by the early 80’s, I was living my own dream: young, newly married and starting a family. We lived out in the country with a wood stove and thrived on simplicity. My idea of roughing it was romanticized by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. I knew little of the horrific aftermath of the Vietnam War and less of the devastation it took on men like Ernt.

The Great Alone is a story of ‘behind closed doors’ giving insight into the pain and suffering that our country was still reeling from in the late 70’s early 80’s. Things were not perfect. Hannah captures and develops believable characters and portrays a young family trapped in crisis. I found the transition of pace and tension shifting gears a bit abrupt, but I loved the beautiful description of Alaska and how the story segues into a redemptive ending.

The Great Alone is a must read for 2018!

Sail in and Saddle up!

If one of your goals this year is to join a book club or simply get out of your comfort zone and try something new, then look no further!

Everett Public Library’s Evergreen Branch Southside Book Club commences its first book discussion of 2018 on Tuesday, February 13th at 6:30. We will be talking about Before the Wind by Jim Lynch and you can expect a welcome atmosphere, light refreshments, and an enjoyable exchange of insights and comments. Consider yourself invited.

If you are participating in the 2018 Reading Challenge at the Everett Public Library, Before the Wind is the perfect match for the month of January. This book is a classic Northwest story by a local author. It is set on the inland waters of Puget Sound where boating in all its forms is a way of life for many. The story follows the Johannssen family. A family that is a portrait of dysfunction bound together by their love of sailing.

Locals will recognize landmarks and your knowledge, or lack thereof, of sailing will not affect your enjoyment of this book. Lynch captures the nuances of Northwest living (for example “rain becomes your roommate”) and he appreciates the mystical love affair men and women have with their craft, be they seaworthy or not. My colleague Leslie blogged on this very same book two years ago, sharing first hand her families own experience.

If book club or sailing isn’t your thing, saddle up and come out for an evening with author Craig Johnson, best known for the award-winning Longmire mystery book and TV series. Johnson will be speaking at the Everett Performing Arts Center on Saturday, February 10th at 7 pm followed by a chance to meet and socialize with the author. This event is sponsored by the Friends of the Everett Public Library and, appropriately enough, Rainier Beer: Walt’s favorite drink.

The series is about sheriff Longmire and is set in Wyoming. Local law enforcement and a nearby Native American population are the perfect mix for solving crime and creating the Wild West tension of lawlessness. My husband and I just started watching the TV series and are hooked by the credible characters and adventure. Both the books and DVDs are available at the library.

No Where to Go But Up

I’m a boomer and I’m married to one. Our birth years fall before and after the peak year 1957, when 4.3 million baby boomers were born. Growing older is not an option it’s a fact and I’m not alone.

Consider this statistic: “as of 2016, the number of baby boomers ranged from 74.1 million to 81.3 million, depending on whether the generation begins with the birth year 1943 or 1946. By 2056, the population 65 years and over is projected to become larger than the population under 18 years.”  (Information cited from The Baby Boom Cohort in the United States.) The question is how golden will baby boomers ‘golden years’ be.

My folks are both still alive in their 80’s and for the most part independent. They provide me a glimpse into what my later years might well look like. When I began reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande it was like I’d been given a key to unlocking some of the mystery to changes I’d seen in my folks  granting me a greater understanding of those changes.

Over the past several years my mother has had two orthopedic surgeries and has elected to not have another because of the long grueling process of getting back to a measure of normality. Consequently the severe arthritis she suffers from will eventually limit her mobility, which we’ve briefly discussed.

My Dad has been on blood thinners most of his adult life prompted by a surgery gone awry in his 30’s. While he celebrated his 70th skiing Sun Valley, he has slowed down considerably. A bypass surgery and circulation issues have taken a toll despite his disciplined diet and exercise. On my husband’s side we have had the unique experience of participating in hospice care for both his dad and mom; the one in their own home the other in ours.

You need look no farther than the evening news to hear about the latest medication to ‘ask your doctor about’ with a promise of eliminating the discomforts of getting older. The good news is that there is more hope than advertisements suggest for staying youthful and finding anti-aging supplements.

There are many books on staying young, but I recently came across several books on the subject of aging which is what attracted me to Gawande’s book and taking a candid look at this topic. I recently listened to a local webinar about servicing the aging population in our libraries giving me food for thought and leading me to investigate what our library has available on the subject.

Popular blogger Ashton Applewhite writes This Chair that Rocks. The library has her latest book by the same title This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Applewhite is passionate about the subject, and is widely recognized as somewhat of an expert by the American Society on Aging. She asserts that stigmas associated with aging are largely overlooked when it comes to marketing, despite the fact that the ‘silver market’ is the fastest growing. Advertisers cater to 15 to 35 year olds. For a well-researched look at this topic, this is the book that looks to be very relevant.

I remember when I turned 50 years old and felt enthusiastic to make some sort of contribution to society, as if raising a family and working the greater portion of my life wasn’t enough. I surveyed my first 50 years and rationalized that the larger portion of my life had passed and if anything meaningful and creative were to occur I’d best get started.  Laurie Russell’s Journey to 50: How to Live with Gratitude, Grace, and the Effects of Gravity captures the same spirit I once aspired to. She offers women a practical approach to navigating the 50th decade, sprinkled with humor and spiritual insights. Here is a quote: Giving up is easy. Letting go takes effort and can be painful- but it frees you to become anew.

Eric B. Larson, MD is an expert on the science and subject of healthy aging. He has spent much of the past 40 years studying the aging process. From our own backyard in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Larson is a clinical professor of medicine at the University Of Washington School Of Medicine and of health services at the UW School of Public Health. He has worked and cared for thousands of elderly people. In his book Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long Active Life, co-authored with journalist Joan DeClaire, Dr. Larson shares case studies giving the reader a scientific and medical perspective. Right up front he states “There is no magic bullet’,” He believes resilience in those who age well is born out of their capacity to adapt and grow stronger in the face of adversity and stress. The book discusses key concepts that contribute to individuals in the aging process. They are proactivity, acceptance, and the three reservoirs: mental, physical, and social.

If Our Bodies Could Talk a Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body by James Hamblin M.D. is not solely about aging. It contains a plethora of subjects addressing an exhaustive list of questions; questions you may want to ask your doctor but think are too silly to ask. Take for example these two: How much sleep do I actually need? and Can I train myself to sleep less? This book is broken up into six categories associated with the body and how various parts operate. There are hand drawn diagrams that combine entertainment with educational answers, breaking up what might otherwise have been too technical. Whether you read one or two sections, you will find plenty of practical advice including the main topic of this blog: ‘Enduring: the dying parts.’ I really enjoyed the book jacket depicting a colorful word cloud.

If you’d prefer to read a less technical book with a more personal connection, there is Malachy McCourt’s memoir Death Need Not Be Fatal. Or you may find solace in reading Thomas Moore’s latest book offering a more philosophical approach, Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy.

Life is a series of seasons from youth to old age, how we weather those seasons is largely up to us. As I look forward to my golden years I’m grateful for my health and the many resources available at the library to help me through them. I realize golden may look bronze or silver, but that’s OK!

A Piece of the World

Christina Baker Kline’s most recent novel, A Piece of the World, is set against the backdrop of the remote coastal town of Cushing, Maine. It is the location where Andrew Wyeth created his famous masterpiece Christina’s World. To gain a better understanding of the artist I checked out Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In by Nancy Anderson. I found this informative book with photos of Wyeth’s work fascinating, adding to my enjoyment of the novel. This was furthered as I listened to A Piece of the World on audio book and read by Polly Stone whose hypnotic voice was like a tonic.

Kline’s novel primarily follows the life of Christina Olson the subject of Wyeth’s painting. The author draws from historical facts and imagination to paint a portrait, no pun intended, of Christina Olson. Christina lived her entire life in her family home which dates back to her mother’s Hathorn side of the family. In her youth Christina was vibrant and full of determination, choosing to not let her physical disability keep her from enjoying life. It is during this period that Christina’s parents seek medical treatment for her in anticipation of finding a cure for their daughter’s crippled leg. But a day’s journey by buggy in the hopes of finding a remedy turned sour when Christina refused to be seen by the physician. Her father was furious. At age 12, still eager to continue her education, Christina’s dreams are overruled by her father and she is forced to stay at home, assisting her fragile mother with chores and attending to her younger brothers.

The story, like Wyeth’s painting of curtains lifting off the window frame by ocean breezes, swings between alternating seasons in Christina’s life, exposing light and air followed by darkness and disappointment.

It is during mid-life that Christina, fairly isolated and bitter, meets a young Andrew Wyeth by way of her young neighbor and friend Betsy. Wyeth is sensitive and enthusiastic yet a bit hesitant to take the spotlight. During his first visit to the homestead he is instantly taken with its character and makes a studio in an upper bedroom. The young couple fall in love and are married; they will remain a part of the Olson’s life for years.

I’ll admit that I’d all but given up on completing this post until I spotted an advertisement for a Wyeth exhibit coming to SAM. I’m even more thrilled to discover that the companion book to the exhibit can be checked out from the Everett Public Library: Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect.

I don’t know about you, but this sort of crazy coincidence (reading a good historical novel that piqued my appetite to learn more about the artist and then having the opportunity to go see his work) is simply thrilling!

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is a gripping and powerful read. The characters are well-developed and the story is based on historical fact which is fascinating.

Stretching back to the 1920’s, many children were left parentless. The unfortunate consequence of this was that some children became a commodity. The Orphan Train, written by Christina Baker Kline, brought awareness to this sad and secretive time in U.S. history when children were shipped off from their families, often losing contact with their siblings and relatives.

Wingate’s latest novel hones in on one particular orphanage run by Georgia Tann in Memphis, Tennessee. The Tennessee Children’s Home Society operated from 1920 to 1950. While there were real orphans in need of a home, other children in Ms. Tann’s system were not there by choice. Horrible conditions and shameful atrocities were kept secret by powerful people until, under pressure from the victims’ families, the home’s records were finally opened in 1995.

Before We Were Yours parallels the lives of two fictional families separated by time. One stormy night in 1939 a young family living in a shanty boat along the Mississippi river is forever changed. In the present day the story of the prominent Stafford family of Aiken, South Carolina unfolds, merging the past with the present. Inserting facts, Wingate writes a credible and compelling story exposing the pain and heartache of innocent children in the grip of a very influential woman.

In the late 1920’s there was a black market for orphaned children. Georgia Tann’s orphanage was run with the help of individuals in authority. People of status and importance were recipients of Tann’s industry. Families in dire straits were duped into signing papers which allowed Ms. Tann to prosper. This went on for nearly 30 years. Children were taken from their parents and torn apart from their siblings.

Stafford family member Avery is on track to follow in her congressman father’s political footsteps. But a chance encounter during a publicity campaign at a local nursing home turns into something more when a hidden secret unbeknownst to all but her grandmother is revealed. Avery is curious to find answers and meets up with just the right person who will help her unravel the past.

Literary fiction is my favorite but every now and then I enjoy reading a simple well written story. Discovering this obscure bit of history, reading a plausible story, and meeting pleasant characters is why I would recommend this book.

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is as picturesque as the title suggests. This novel will trigger a desire to witness firsthand the rugged wilds of Alaska. It is a mesmerizing story of adventure, mystery, historical fact, and folklore. I didn’t want the book to end! The epic journey begins at Fort Vancouver in Washington Territory and ends in the uncharted territory of the Yukon. Ivey’s book is rife with detail depicting Native American culture, the era of fur traders, and the pioneers.

The year is 1885 and Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester of the U.S. Calvary is commissioned to lead an expedition exploring the uncharted land beyond the Wolverine River. The journey will nearly cost him his life. He leaves behind his young wife Sophia. Sophia had planned to join the men but discovered she was pregnant shortly before the company was set to sail out of Portland harbor. Unwillingly, she takes the doctor’s advice and will not make the journey until many years later. Vibrant, curious, and not given to convention, Sophia discovers an inner strength and talent for wild life photography.

Through a series of letters written as a journal between husband and wife, the most intimate expressions of the heart are revealed: fear, frustration, loss, and the deep longing to see each other.

Set in the present, another series of letters giving an account of the historical expedition are exchanged between Walter Forrester, whose great-uncle was the colonel, and a young museum curator named Joshua living in the remote town of Alpine, Alaska. Through their correspondence a relationship is formed and the details of past and present come to life with actual photographs included.

Ivey’s reimagining of the Forrester’s story, which began over a hundred years ago and briefly describes their short time together, is followed by a beautiful story of courage, endurance, and the power of love. As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed being transported to a different time and an unforgettable place.

The Girl Before by JP Delaney

The Girl Before by JP Delaney is not my typical feel good read, in fact it is anything but!

girlbeforeInitially after reading the summary of this advanced reader copy and agreeing to preview the book, I expected I’d be getting a historical  novel but there was a mix up. Once I received the book and read the back jacket it was quite clear The Girl Before was not what I signed up for. However it looked intriguing: a psychological thriller, something I do enjoy now and then.

Admittedly, as I began reading I got sucked into the short chapters alternating between Emma and Jane. What I wasn’t prepared for was the graphic sex scenes. At one point I nearly gave up, but  I read on Amazon that the book is soon to be a movie produced by Ron Howard.

I’d just seen an old re-run of The Andy Griffith Show and had lingering fond memories of the good old days. I rationalized Opie, Ron Howard’s sweet innocent character, wouldn’t be involved in anything too scandalous.

Well I’ll let you be the judge of that!

Emma and Jane have multiple things in common: each are looking for a fresh start, both women are in a vulnerable state, neither of them can afford the flat known as One Folgate Street, and both  women have a similar look, one that attracts strange men. Lastly, and most disturbingly, Emma and Jane don’t seem fazed by the fact that the flat they want to rent has a frightening history.

First we meet Emma and her boyfriend Simon as they are filling out an elaborate questionnaire to meet the bizarre qualifications to become renters. Emma is much more engaged than Simon who more or less just goes along. Emma ends her relationship with Simon shortly after the couple moves into One Folgate Street. Emma moves right into a sizzling relationship with One Folgate Street’s owner Edward. The relationship seems a stretch given Emma’s lack of tidiness, something Edward insists upon, but she manages to compromise as she becomes obsessed with her new lover.

Next we are introduced to Jane who takes possession of One Folgate Street after Emma’s mysterious death. Jane must comply as well with the restrictive guidelines required to live in One Folgate and she too ends up in a romantic relationship with Edward. Like Emma, at her own expense.

Edward is a purist, a perfectionist, a minimalist, and even though I didn’t look up the definition of a sociopath in the dictionary, I imagined Edward to fit the mold. Not surprisingly he approaches Jane in the same manner he did Emma.

One Folgate Street is a secure and ultra-modern flat giving both women peace of mind. The house is operated remotely by technology. For example, if one breaks the ‘rules’ the shower will not turn on or turn cold notifying the resident that they have broken a rule. Edward, as I mentioned, has idiosyncrasies about neatness. It is just one of the absolutes that tenants are expected to strictly adhere to.

I’ve not read The Girl on the Train, nor Gone Girl, but I have recently read The Woman in Cabin 10. The Girl Before moves much more quickly and is a page turning mystery thriller. You’ve been warned!