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.

We Never Asked for Wings

weneveraskedforwingsThe novel We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh gives a voice to the desperate and marginalized, depicting faulty characters some of whom are innocent victims of circumstance.

In the afterward, author Vanessa Diffenbaugh confides that this was a hard story to write following the success of her 1st novel The Language of Flowers. I found it a hard book to read. I began by listening to the audiobook version but switched over to the book near the last few chapters. The two main characters are flawed and at times the story simply didn’t seem plausible; I had to keep reminding myself what I knew of their situation to help make sense of their actions.

Diffenbaugh is a wife and mother of four and is also an advocate for foster children. She sits on the board of Youth Villages, a non-profit that seeks to improve outcomes for America’s most vulnerable children and families.

After reading this I realized I may have been too quick to judge. Diffenbaugh is not typing away in a cozy cabin, she is a busy mom involved in her community. My perception of her was altered to one of respect.

We Never Asked for Wings is a contemporary story set in the Bay area. Letty is a single mother of Hispanic descent born in the United States. She is co-dependent on her parents, illegals who have raised her two children while she works as a bartender to support the family. When Letty discovers a note from her mother stating she has left to join her husband who returned to his native Mexico 6 weeks earlier, Letty adds her name to the note, abandoning her 15-year-old son Alex and 6-year-old daughter Luna.

Catching up with her mother at a bus station, Letty lies to her mother about her children’s safety and the two continue across the border to her parent’s home. Eventually Letty’s mother discovers the truth and sends Letty back to San Francisco to take responsibility for her two children.

Alex is smart, responsible, and reliable, but he is still a kid. When he finds out his mother has left he is angry, but he does not neglect to care for his younger sister while his mother is gone. Yesenia is an illegal immigrant and a classmate of Alex. The two develop a friendship which leads to first love. When Alex moves to a better school in a better neighborhood, he is unable to protect Yesenia from school bullies. In an attempt to rescue her, Alex takes advantage of a good teacher’s trust by breaking into the school database and enrolling Yesenia into Mission Hills School. Alex not only compromises his education, but creates a much greater problem for Yesenia.

Letty works hard to become a parent to her two children, but at age 32 she manages to make some pretty stupid mistakes. She insists on keeping the identity of her son’s father from him, but Alex’s persistence and curiosity win out.

The story is set in a nearby marsh at the end of the San Francisco Airport runway where there are colonies of migrating birds. The setting is both beautiful and disturbing, juxtaposing the frailty of the birds against the jumbo jets. Both are free to take flight, unlike the human lives portrayed in Diffenbaugh’s story.

While this was not one of my most favorite reads of 2015, I’m glad I stuck with it because it has given me a measure of insight into the lives of people who have fled their own country in hopes of a better life, only to face more hardship. I realize each life is unique and that there are all sorts of variables, but in this particular story I found myself empathizing with Yesenia and her mother who had fled Mexico because of severe abuse and the need for medical help.

A Dream Come True

January meeting  Boys in the Boat Everett Reads

My dream to start a book club ignited about 6 years ago when my husband and I stepped into a coffee shop in downtown Yakima: the smell of fresh roasted coffee, the inviting ambient atmosphere, the comfortable seating, the ample space to play chess or cribbage OR, as I imagined, ‘have a book discussion.’ As I sat there sipping a good brew my wheels began to spin.

The idea percolated in my head for a year or so, but I couldn’t get past my imagined ‘ideal’ setting. I finally decided to just step out and give it a shot. First I contacted my local Everett Public Library which was extremely handy since I work and live nearby. Anita manages the library’s Book group collection. She walked me through the process of borrowing and loaning out books. Each book set provides the borrower with discussion questions and a sign out sheet to keep track of who borrows which book. Generally a book club will meet every month or so, returning the finished book and picking up the next one.

snowflowerFeeling a boost of confidence and equipped with a set of 10 books, I invited girlfriends to meet at my home. Five showed up and I made the 6th. A good number for starting out. That first auspicious evening I felt nervous; preparing light refreshments was the easy part selling my dream seemed a bit more daunting. My guests arrived. Introductions were made followed by discussion and explanations of how we would work our group. Filled with anticipation and excitement I passed out Lisa See’s, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a book I’d selected for our first discussion.

We reconvened a month or so later to discuss the story of Lily and Snow Flower set in rural China during the 19th century. I thought this was an exquisite story and was certain everyone would agree, but unfortunately some members were quite disturbed by the traditional practice of foot binding. Sadly within the first year one, then two, then three and four gals dropped out and the book club died. I didn’t count it as a loss. I chalked it up to a learning experience and was able to see the value for what it was at the time. The spark of a dream continued to flicker and I made a few less energetic attempts but eventually shelved the idea.

Then a couple of years ago the thoughts of having a book club here at work surfaced; my manager showed genuine interest and enthusiasm. This new book club idea was flavored with the concept of making food the central theme for discussion. I researched food themed book clubs but decided I wasn’t brave enough to try a strangers cooking. Meantime Alan, our branch manager, had gained a vision for the south Everett library to have a book club and was not quick to give it up.

bookclubbooks

Long story short, with support, encouragement, and the help of co-workers the Southside Book Club launched a year ago. The book club has been dubbed: ‘Terrific books, substantial discussions, and light refreshments!’ Over the last year the library has weathered a year with cut backs and schedule changes, but the Southside Book Club survived! The Southside Book Club is open to the public. Books are made available at the Evergreen Branch reference desk a month in advance or you can check out any available copies from the library collection. Last week we enjoyed a lively discussion of Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife. The remaining books and discussions for 2015 are: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand August 25th, The Cove on October 13th, and on December 8th The Rosie Project.

Upon reflection I had to let go of my cozy coffee shop with mood lighting ideal and realize the opportunity and potential staring me right in the face. This past year has been exciting: meeting new people, listening and sharing thoughts and ideas and making new friends. A dream come true! In preparing for our last discussion I discovered this great quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

It takes as much courage to have tried and failed as it does to have tried and succeeded.