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!

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

vinegar-girlKate Battista systematically prepares meat mash once a week, dutifully serving it every night to her father and younger sister Bunny. Her father, Dr. Battista has calculated ingredients for efficiency, but his most recent and desperately devised plan involves Kate in a whole new way. One day Kate’s father calls her at home under false pretenses, feigning that he’s forgotten his lunch. His motive is simple: he wants his daughter to marry Pyotr Cherbakov. Pyotr works as a research lab assistant with Dr. Battisa and his work Visa is about to expire.

Kate is offended and hurt by her father’s lack of sensitivity. Taking a stand, she refuses to do her father’s income taxes. Not only does Kate manage the household affairs, she is also expected to enforce her father’s rules, rules which include that her spirited sister Bunny is not to have boys in the house during Kate and her father’s absence. After work one day, Kate comes home to discover Bunny and Edward, an older next door neighbor, alone together. He is supposedly teaching her ‘Spanish.’ Edward’s influence becomes much more suspicious as the story unfolds.

One evening Professor Battista uncharacteristically, and with the help of a few drinks, pours out his heart to Kate which results in her giving into her father’s charade. She agrees to conspire with her father and marry Pyotr Cherbakov for immigration purposes. Gradually life begins to take a turn and a flicker of hope sparks in Kate as she muses over the potential to move from home and her dead-end life.

Pyotr and Kate begin doing things engaged couples usually do: grocery shop, sharing dinner together and so on. All the while Dr. Battista films these activities as evidence of their sincerity. At the market Pyotr grabs pork to which Kate objects. Edward’s influence has converted Bunny to veganism complicating Kate’s meat mash dish. Pyotr comments “In my country they have proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’” Beguiled but on the defensive, Kate quips back “Well in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  Pyotr declares her his ‘Vinegar Girl.’ He is able to see beneath her acerbic character and a growing but awkward relationship begins to bud.

On the day of Pyotr and Kate’s wedding, Pyotr does not show up leading to a suspenseful and comical yet sweet ending.

Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl has been dubbed a modern day The Taming of the Shrew and I found it humorous, sincere, witty and delightfully quirky.

She Came in Through the Bathroom Window

sundaysonthephoneWho came in through the bathroom window? That’s what I wondered. Local legend has it that an exuberant Beatles fan tried to sneak a peek of Paul McCarthy in his home, giving birth to the now famous song “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” A lyric from that song is the title of Christine Reilly’s debut novel Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday. Music and trivia fans will find the book packed full of references to songs and lyrics, sadly many of which went over my head. My curiosity to discover a deeper meaning kept me turning the pages,however. Written in a style different from my usual go to historical or character driven fiction, Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday broadened my reading experience.

The song “She came in through the bathroom window” is off the Abbey Road album released in 1969. This discovery transported me back to my babysitting days where I played the album displaying the iconic photo of the four Beatles crossing the street. I’m clueless how this may or may not relate to the book.

Unlike most stories I read in which characters are developed via the setting followed by a moving plot, Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday is unique in that much of the narrative is revealed by placing the reader in the head of an individual character. Characterization formulated through the exchange of conversation is minimal and the elements of mood and tone bounce back and forth reflected in the personality of each character. This works especially well in the depiction of Claudio’s mentally ill sister, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mathilde is a born and raised New Yorker, coming from a family where money has never been an issue. Claudio Simone’s upbringing in Detroit was quite the opposite. After graduation from the University of Michigan, he hopped on a bus to New York where he wound up meeting Mathilde.

Both in their turbulent twenties, the two find love and companionship. They elope when the last performance of a play Mathilde has starred in comes to an end. After a civil ceremony, the two combine the cast party with their marriage reception and celebrate into the night dancing, snorting cocaine, and talking dreamily of their future.

The following day Claudia calls his folks to share the good news and inquire about his older sister Jane who has lived in a mental institution since age 15. Jane was diagnosed with a list of disorders, the most recent being schizophrenia. Plagued with guilt, Claudio feels responsible for Jane’s condition because she was sexually abused by a man when she was about 15 years old; Claudio thinks he could have prevented it somehow.

Sawyer is Malthide’s brother; gay and just wanting to find someone to love him. As a boy he was taunted and treated unkindly and Malthide was always there to offer comfort and support. Loyalty to family is all important to both Mathilde and Claudio.

That is until Claudio, in desperation, collaborates with Sawyer who agrees to marry Jane, secretly. Sawyer’s marriage to Jane allows her to receive much-needed institutional care. Claudio keeps this from Mathilde for years as Sawyer does from his partner Noah. And Jane, well Jane can’t figure out why she never gets to see her husband.

The Simones have three daughters: Natasha, Lucy, and Carly who is adopted as an infant from China. Mathilde’s family money allows the couple and their children to live comfortably: she works in the world of theatre and Claudio manages a vinyl record shop. The sisters are close-knit and unique, Natasha smart and unemotional, Lucy the heart and soul of the family, and Carly inquisitive and sensitive.

If asked the question “would I recommend Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday” I would answer “yes if you like quirky and want to try something different.” Personally I like getting a bit more involved with the characters I’m reading about and I guess that is what I felt a bit lacking with the exception of Jane, the schizophrenic character who is very credible.

Whiskey, Charlie and Lucy Barton

Whiskey and Charlie by Annabel Smith

whiskeyOccasionally I’ll come across a book that evokes emotions analogous to my own life in some profound way. Circumstances, time, people, and place differ but the tenor resonates. While reading Annabel Smith’s Whiskey and Charlie, someone I dearly love was dealing with the difficulty and awkwardness of preparing for an in-laws death. The situation was complicated by each individual’s manner of coping with the grief and reality of it. As I lent a listening ear, I couldn’t help but compare the emotional climate to that of which I was reading about in Whiskey and Charlie. Indeed fear and uncertainty heightens one’s sense of helplessness.

 

Charlie’s complacent world is jolted when he gets the word that his brother Whiskey has been struck by a car and is lying in a hospital in a coma. The brothers, once inseparable, have grown apart over the past 25 years.

Smith cleverly begins each chapter by implementing the phonetic alphabet ‘a list of the words used in communications to represent the letters of the alphabet, as in E for Echo, T for Tango’.  Each word or name serves as a metaphor to communicate the heart and soul of the story. Beginning with Alpha: William is the first-born of the twin brothers later to take on the nickname Whiskey he is gregarious, confident, and successful. Charlie tries to emulate his brother in their youth, but struggles to keep up and eventually distances himself. He is shy, introspective, and has difficulty expressing himself.

The timeline flips back and forth from present to past, reconstructing Charlie and Whiskey’s relationship. Though told in the third person, it is impossible to not get caught up in the complexity of Charlie’s struggle to reconcile the past with the present. The boys’ mother works to keep the family together. Both young men have found caring, loving, and supportive women who also share in the pain and tragedy of Whiskey’s unresponsive condition. Nearly a full year passes and decisions about whether to keep Whiskey on life support create a growing tension and fear amongst the family members.

This is a thoughtful, tender story portraying credible characters. It is an honest and thought-provoking read making it an excellent book club pick.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

lucybartonElizabeth Strout and Anne Lamott  are two of my favorite authors because they are able to say the things that most of us only think in our heads but may never admit providing rich insight and illumination on the human condition.

I loved The Burgess Boys, so it was with much anticipation that I dove into Strout’s latest book My Name is Lucy Barton. To be honest I wasn’t quite sure if I was reading part of Strout’s own story at first. There is no prologue and the chapters aren’t numbered; the story simply begins.

An intimate setting emerges. Lucy is confined to the hospital for nine weeks when a surgery leaves her with a nasty infection.  Lucy could be a portrait of many women: A wife and mother of two young girls, she is vulnerable and lonely. Her husband has an aversion to hospitals and rarely visits. He hires a woman who will later become his lover to care for their young daughters and arranges for Lucy’s estranged mother to visit her in the hospital.

In the five days that Lucy’s mother stays by her bedside conversations between mother and daughter transpire; gentle at first graduating to raw and revealing. Lucy craves to hear her mother say the words she will never hear. The years of poverty and the chains of shame have left scars and schisms. Desperate for mother’s affection and approval, Lucy emotionally lapses into the child hanging on her mother’s every word. She even reverts to calling her ‘Mommy’.Lucy also yearns for her mother to ask about her life, her family, her career. She never does.

Lucy is writing ‘her own story’ taking advice from a successful author whose workshop she once attended. As Lucy reviews moments of her life, we come to love and sympathize with her. Strout masterfully depicts life’s mundane and ordinary events and casts sentiment and compassion upon her characters: People who could be us.